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Who would have thought that all it takes to hack SpaceX’s global internet service Starlink is a $25 modded chip? Lennert Wouters, a security researcher from Belgium, was able to hack into Starlink’s network and its communication links, and freely explore the entire system. As scary as it may sound, he has no ill will. Before he spoke publicly about the hack, which he made sure to report to Starlink in its entirety, SpaceX’s response to the hack was unbelievable.
Most of us associate hacking with various nefarious activities, and rightfully so. After all, we’ve all heard (or experienced ourselves) stories of friends or family being hacked in one way or another. Additionally, organizations are often subject to cybersecurity hacks and attacks. For example, not long ago, Samsung suffered a cyber attack in which some sensitive internal data was stolen. Given the increasing frequency of these attacks (as seen in this Kaspersky report), with security researchers like Wouters busy, companies can benefit from these hacks.
In order to break into Starlink, Waters dismantled the Starlink satellite antenna he owned. He then modified it with a custom circuit board consisting of a Raspberry Pi microcontroller, electronic switches, flash memory and voltage regulators. He soldered the unit to an existing Starlink power circuit board (PCB) and wired it up. Once connected, the tool is able to temporarily short-circuit the system, giving Wouters a way into the system. Wouters described the hack in full on Black Hat, noting that once he gained access, he was able to freely explore the network.
This is a good reminder that while hacking seems to be more common these days, not every vulnerability is created equal – or equally dangerous. While it’s complicated, you can think of hackers as generally falling into one of two categories, physical or remote. For physical hackers, someone who wants to exploit a vulnerability needs to have physical contact with the device in order to manipulate it.
This is the category the Starlink disc hack falls into: Wouters need to physically open the disc, access electronic devices , and wire in his components to subvert the system. He needs to be in the same location as the Starlink antenna and have an uninterrupted opportunity to process what’s inside. While it’s serious — and SpaceX is clearly taking it seriously — it’s not