France Questions Russian Satellite with “Big Ears”

French Defense Minister Florence Parly took a page out of Little Red Riding Hood when she recently called out a Russian satellite for having “big ears”. While she stopped short of giving any concrete details, it was a rare and not terribly veiled accusation that Russia is using their Luch-Olymp spacecraft to perform orbital espionage.

Luch satellite conceptual drawing from NASA

At a speech in Toulouse, Parly was quoted as saying: “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.” and “this little Stars Wars didn’t happen a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It happened a year ago, 36,000 kilometers above our heads.”

The target of this potential act of space piracy is the Athena-Fidus satellite, a joint venture between France and Italy to provide secure communication for the military and emergency services of both countries. Launched in 2014, it provides 3 Gbit/s throughput via the Ka-band for mobile receivers on the ground and in drones.

This isn’t the first time Russia’s Luch class of vehicles has been the subject of scrutiny. In 2015 it was reported that one such craft maneuvered to within 10 kilometers of the Intelsat 7 and Intelsat 901 geostationary communications satellites, prompting classified meetings at the United States Defense Department. As geostationary satellites orbit the Earth at 3.07 km/s, a 10 km approach is exceptionally dangerous. Even a slight miscalculation could cause an impact within seconds.

Could Stealth Satellites Be In Our Future?

Much to the chagrin of shadowy spy agencies everywhere, this sort of orbital cat and mouse is easily detectable from the ground. When spy planes became easy to detect using radar, the next step was to evade that detection. Are we on a path to satellites that are transparent to radar?

Gregory Charvat, author of Small and Short-Range Radar Systems and occasional contributor here at Hackaday, tells us that building a stealth satellite is no easy task. “Just like how we had to re-invent the aircraft to make the first stealth aircraft, to make a stealth satellite one would have to fundamentally re-invent the satellite as we know it today.”

Likening it to the immense cost and effort it took to develop stealth aircraft like the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, Gregory says developing a satellite which could hide from radar would likely be more trouble than it’s worth for most applications. Space is already hard enough. “Maintaining that special shape that reflects radar away from your aircraft and including all of these essential peripherals is a big challenge” Gregory says, which results in “compromise and high maintenance costs.”

Beyond attempting to eavesdrop on communications, military insiders say that these close passes by Luch satellites could also be “dry-runs” for anti-satellite operations; either by using a directed energy weapon to disable the target spacecraft, or simply running into it. With events like these, and the commitment by the United States to establish a Space Force in the coming years, efforts to militarize space seem to be on the rise.

[via DefenseNews]

Tiny Transmitter Brings Out the Spy Inside You

When it comes to surveillance, why let the government have all the fun? This tiny spy transmitter is just the thing you need to jumpstart your recreational espionage efforts.

We kid, of course — you’ll want to stay within the law of the land if you choose to build [TomTechTod]’s diminutive transmitter. Barely bigger than the 337 button cell that powers it, the scrap of PCB packs a fair number of surface mount components, most in 0201 packages. Even so, the transmitter is a simple design, with a two transistor audio stage amplifying the signal from the MEMS microphone and feeding an oscillator that uses a surface acoustic wave (SAW) resonator for stability. The bug is tuned for the 433-MHz low-power devices band, and from the video below, it appears to have decent range with the random wire antenna — maybe 50 meters. [TomTechTod] has all the build files posted, including Gerbers and a BOM with Digikey part numbers, so it should be easy to make one for your fieldcraft kit.

If you want to dive deeper into the world of electronic espionage, boy, have we got you covered. Here’s a primer on microphone bugs, a history of spy radios, or how backscatter was used to bug an embassy.

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A TEMPEST in a Dongle

If a couple of generations of spy movies have taught us anything, it’s that secret agents get the best toys. And although it may not be as cool as a radar-equipped Aston Martin or a wire-flying rig for impossible vault heists, this DIY TEMPEST system lets you snoop on computers using secondary RF emissions.

If the term TEMPEST sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve covered it before. [Elliot Williams] gave an introduction to the many modalities that fall under the TEMPEST umbrella, the US National Security Agency’s catch-all codename for bridging air gaps by monitoring the unintended RF, light, or even audio emissions of computers. And more recently, [Brian Benchoff] discussed a TEMPEST hack that avoided the need for thousands of dollars of RF gear, reducing the rig down to an SDR dongle and a simple antenna. There’s even an app for that now: TempestSDR, a multiplatform Java app that lets you screen scrape a monitor based on its RF signature. Trouble is, getting the app running on Windows machines has been a challenge, but RTL-SDR.com reader [flatfishfly] solved some of the major problems and kindly shared the magic. The video below shows TempestSDR results; it’s clear that high-contrast images at easiest to snoop on, but it shows that a $20 dongle and some open-source software can bridge an air gap. Makes you wonder what’s possible with deeper pockets.

RF sniffing is only one of many ways to exfiltrate data from an air-gapped system. From power cords to security cameras, there seems to be no end to the ways to breach systems.

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Books You Should Read: The Cuckoo’s Egg

The mid-1980s were a time of drastic change. In the United States, the Reagan era was winding down, the Cold War was heating up, and the IBM PC was the newest of newnesses. The comparatively few wires stitching together the larger university research centers around the world pulsed with a new heartbeat — the Internet Protocol (IP) — and while the World Wide Web was still a decade or so away, The Internet was a real place for a growing number of computer-savvy explorers and adventurers, ready to set sail on the virtual sea to explore and exploit this new frontier.

In 1986, having recently lost his research grant, astronomer Clifford Stoll was made a computer system admin with the wave of a hand by the management of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory’s physics department. Commanded to go forth and administer, Stoll dove into what appeared to be a simple task for his first day on the job: investigating a 75-cent error in the computer account time charges. Little did he know that this six-bit overcharge would take over his life for the next six months and have this self-proclaimed Berkeley hippie rubbing shoulders with the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the German Bundeskriminalamt, all in pursuit of the source: a nest of black-hat hackers and a tangled web of international espionage.

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Swans, Pigs, and the CIA: An Unlikely Radio Story

Shortwave radio is boring, right? Maybe not. You never know what intrigue and excitement you might intercept. We recently covered secret number stations, and while no one knows for sure exactly what their purpose is, it is almost surely involving cloaks and daggers. However, there’s been some more obvious espionage radio, like Radio Swan.

The swan didn’t refer to the animal, but rather an island just off of Honduras that, until 1972, was disputed between Honduras and the United States. The island got its name–reportedly–because it was used as a base for a pirate named Swan in the 17th century. This island also had a long history of use by the United States government. The Department of Agriculture used it to quarantine imported beef and a variety of government departments had weather stations there.

You might wonder why the United States claimed a tiny island so far away from its shores. It turns out, it was all about guano. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 allowed the president to designate otherwise unclaimed territory as part of the United States for the purpose of collecting guano which, in addition to being bird excrement, is also important because it contains phosphates used in fertilizer and gunpowder. (Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.)

However, the most famous occupant of Swan Island was Radio Swan which broadcast on the AM radio band and shortwave. The station was owned by the Gibraltar Steamship Company with offices on Fifth Avenue in New York. Oddly, though, the company didn’t actually have any steamships. What it did have was some radio transmitters that had been used by Radio Free Europe and brought to the island by the United States Navy. Did I mention that the Gibraltar Steamship Company was actually a front for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)?

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