A Belgian researcher hacks the Starlink satellite dish, Elon Musk thanks him

Belgian student researcher Lennert Wouters has successfully hacked a satellite dish from Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite network. Elon Musk’s company thanks him with a check for $12,000.

“First of all, we’d like to commend Lennert Wouters for his research into Starlink user endpoint security.” This is the praise sent a few days ago by the company Starlink, the satellite network of SpaceX, the space company of Elon Musk, abouta doctoral student at KU Leuven.

By placing thousands of satellites in space, the billionaire’s company wants to make fast internet possible around the world. But recently, Lennert Woutersa 30-year-old industrial engineer, has revealed for the first time a major security flaw in the system’s hardware. “We found the attack technically impressive. We believe it is the first of its kind on our system,” Starlink wrote in his statement.

“You can’t build a defense without knowing how an attack works.”

Lennert Wouters

PhD student at KU Leuven

Lennert Wouters is working on his PhD in materials security at COSIC, KU Leuven’s digital security and cryptography research group. “I deal with the offensive side: finding leaks in electronics,” he explains. “Other colleagues are on the defensive and protecting the systems. But you can’t build a defense without knowing how an attack works.”

A year ago, the search engine began its offensive against Starlink. He asked his promoter if he could order a user terminal, a sort of satellite dish. He undressed it and hung a printed circuit on it (bracket for electrically connecting a set of components, Ed) $25. “It was originally a side project,” he says. I didn’t know if anything would come of it.” And finally, last week, Lennert Wouters was allowed to present his successful attack on the Black Hat, a major cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas. he explains.

“This is a first step towards satellite access.”

Lennert Wouters

PhD student at KU Leuven

How did you manage to hack a satellite dish?

If someone were to attack a satellite, it could have significant consequences. As a normal user, you cannot access a satellite directly, but you must go through the user terminal. That’s why I first attacked the user terminal by injecting an error. I was able to short the circuit board for a very short time, 100 nanoseconds. This spoiled the CPU for a while. He has skipped one or more instructions and all security checks have not been carried out. This allowed me to run my own code in the terminal, with the system believing the code was created by SpaceX, not me. I was able to analyze the terminal more deeply.

Is this leak dangerous?

Not immediately. The satellites themselves have no security issues. To change the password, you must have physical access to the device. But this is a first step towards satellite access. I presented my findings at the conference and now others can see if there are other problems.

Were you surprised that your attack worked?

Not really. But I was surprised that the system was so secure. Most products don’t make it very difficult for hackers. Last year, we conducted a survey of home appliances for Test Achats. Once we had the code, it was very easy to find the issues. For example, we could turn off baby monitors remotely. Starlink’s system, on the other hand, is very well done.

Has Starlink plugged the leak yet?

Not yet. He can only fix the problem by making a new version of the chip. So it will take time.

“Am I a fan of Elon Musk? To a degree. I find a lot of his products very impressive. But he has some blind spots.”

Lennert Wouters

PhD student at KU Leuven

Starlink congratulated him and offered him a $12,000 reward. What are you going to do with that money?

Such a reward is normal. SpaceX still has a program of “insect bounties”. We reported two issues, for which we received $8,000 and $4,000. If the survey took place during working hours, the money is for the university. We haven’t talked about it yet.

Two years ago, you had already hacked a Tesla key, allowing you to open the car. Are you targeting Elon Musk?

No! I even find it annoying that his name is always mentioned. It doesn’t have much to do with it. If I’m an Elon Musk fan? Somehow. I find many of their products very impressive. But it has some blind spots.

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