China is suspected of interfering with two U.S. government satellites in one of its most advanced hacking operations to date.
On four occasions between 2007 and 2008 Chinese agents are said to have breached security on the environment-monitoring craft.
The last hack was so effective that they could have completely taken control of the satellite, but did not do so.
A Congressional report said that, while it could not prove for sure China was behind the attacks, what happened was ‘consistent’ with known Chinese cyber war techniques.
Should a war begin China might be able to take over satellites and either use them for their own ends or manoeuvre them to destroy craft belonging to its enemies.
The real-life Star Wars-style attacks come amid rising tensions over China and calls by U.S. president Barack Obama that it should ‘play by the rules’.
The U.S. has just approved its biggest long-term expansion of military presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War in a bid to counterbalance China’s influence.
Some 2,500 extra troops will now be stationed in Australia in a move which has infuriated Beijing.
Yesterday President Obama said the Aisa/Pacific reg-on was America’s ‘top priority’, and that they were ‘here to stay’.
The satellite attacks were outlined in a report by the U.S.-China Economic Security and Review Commission.
A Landsat-7 earth observation satellite system experienced 12 or more minutes of interference in October 2007 and July 2008.
Hackers also interfered with a Terra AM-1 earth observation satellite twice, for two minutes in June 2008 and nine minutes in October that year.
During the final hack ‘the responsible party achieved all steps required to command the satellite’, but did not do so.
Both craft use the commercially operated Svalbard Satellite Station in Spitsbergen, Norway, that ‘routinely relies on the Internet for data access and file transfers,’ the commission said, indicating this might have been how they were attacked.
The satellites affected were run by Nasa or the U.S. Geological Survey and were mostly used for climate observation.
But the U.S. military and intelligence agencies also use them to communicate, collect intelligence and conduct reconnaissance.
The report said China was the most likely culprit, and that the techniques ‘appear consistent with authoritative Chinese military writings’ that have advocated disabling a foe’s satellite control facilities on the ground in a conflict.
General Robert Kehler, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, stressed that the information available was ‘inconclusive’
He said: ‘First of all, I am familiar with the two incidents. The best information that I have is that we cannot attribute those two occurrences. I guess I would agree that we don’t have sufficient detail.’
China has achieved several military firsts in the past year, including testing a stealth bomber and aircraft carrier and progress toward the first anti-ship ballistic missile.
It has long been suspected of running a sophisticated hacking operation, and was blamed for the world’s largest such attack, dubbed ‘Operation Shady RAT’ – which included a British defence contractor among its victims.
Yesterday, in another show of force, China’s unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth successfully after more than two weeks in orbit, a pivotal point in its long-term space plans.
Mr Obama is currently in Bali, Indonesia, where he is the first U.S. president to take part in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. He is expecting a showdown with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao over tensions in the South China Sea, a key shipping channel of which China has claimed a huge stake.
China’s embassy in Washington dismissed the satellite report, and said the commission was ‘vilifying China’s image’.
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