China may have been flaunting its scientific capabilities by meddling with U.S. Earth observation satellites in past years, according to space and computer security experts.
Two unusual incidents involving signals targeting a U.S. Geological Survey satellite in 2007 and 2008 were referred to the Defense Department for investigation, USGS officials said Monday. NASA also experienced two "suspicious events" with a Terra observational satellite in 2008, officials at the space agency confirmed. An annual report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission slated for release Nov. 16 is expected to characterize the events as successful interferences that may be linked to the Chinese government.
"I would say they were demonstrating the science and technology to be able to see what they could gain from it," said Charles Vick, a senior analyst at GlobalSecurity.org who has been briefed on other government reports about China's cyber skills. "To a degree one would think that [getting caught] was part of the mentality. It's a warning. We could do this and a few other things."
A draft of the congressionally established commission's report stated that, with access to a satellite's controls, "opportunities may also exist to reconnoiter or compromise other terrestrial or space-based networks used by the satellite."
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Dale W. Meyerrose, the first chief information officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the incidents may have been accidents, but even so, they are serious in that whoever was responsible could one day turn against the United States. Also, China likely was paying attention to the exploit and learned from it, said Meyerrose, now a vice president at government contractor Harris Corp. who directs the firm's cybersecurity and information technology divisions.
China is scheduled to launch an unmanned spacecraft Tuesday, according to the country's government-controlled English-language newspaper China Daily.
Agencies confirm incidents
The Landsat-7 spacecraft encountered "anomalous radio frequency events," USGS spokesman Jon Campbell confirmed. The satellite provides the public with free imagery of the earth's surface for research purposes, including global change studies. "USGS provided information about these events and cooperated fully with the Department of Defense, which has responsibility for the investigation of the source of the signals," he said.
NASA spokesman Trent J. Perrotto said that after the Terra spacecraft incidents, the space agency also notified the Pentagon, which he said, is responsible for investigating any attempted interference with satellite operations. Terra collects climate and environmental data for scientific investigations.
The commission said the interferences could pose a threat if exerted against satellites involved with more sensitive missions. "Access to a satellite's controls could allow an attacker to damage or destroy the satellite," the draft stated. "The attacker could also deny or degrade as well as forge or otherwise manipulate the satellite's transmission." The 2007 Landsat-7 incident came to light only following a similar episode in 2008, according to the commission's draft report. With the Terra satellite, the responsible party completed the requisite steps to command the spacecraft but did not issue commands.
The commission's analysis of the incidents was first reported by Bloomberg.
USGS and NASA officials said the suspicious episodes did not result in an outside party taking command of the satellites, manipulating data, or extracting information from their equipment.
Campbell added, "the analytical aspects of cybersecurity in space -- determining the precise location, source and possible motive behind these signals -- is not our mission," referring questions about detection of the aberrances to Defense officials. One vulnerability that reportedly may have opened the door to outsiders was a public Internet connection at the satellites' ground station in Norway.
Lt. Col April Cunningham, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said, "we are monitoring China's development of counterspace capabilities, and improving our space situational awareness and ability to operate in a degraded environment. However, our concern here is not focused on only one country." She did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation.
Perrotto said he could not discuss additional details regarding the attempted intrusions.
Both agencies said their satellite operations and associated systems are safe and secure. NASA has since created a working group to initiate an agencywide space protection program, Perrotto said.
George Smith, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, said he would be surprised if the Chinese government was behind such sloppy execution, speculating that this may have been practice for a more aggressive attack.
"It would seem unusual to me that they would fiddle with satellites -- which gets up the United States' antennae -- and then get caught with it," he said. "That doesn't rule out that this was a nation state doing a test run."
Brendan Curry, vice president of Washington operations at the Space Foundation, an advocacy group, also suspected China may have viewed the satellites as a fairly innocuous environment for experimenting with extraterrestrial hacking.
As to why the government is making these sensitive events public now, Smith pointed to the federal government's push for additional cyber defense funding.
This is only the latest in a string of cyber intrusions widely blamed on China. McAfee investigators reported this year that during a targeted five-year operation, one specific entity penetrated the computers of more than 70 global organizations, including six federal agencies, 13 defense contractors and two computer security firms.
The researchers stopped short of attributing the infiltrations to China, but federal officials have traced similar incidents to the nation. A 2010 Defense report stated that many computer systems, "including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated within the [People's Republic of China]. These intrusions focused on exfiltratring information, some of which could be of strategic or military utility."
As hackers target U.S. computers with increasing intensity and frequency, the White House on Friday took the unusual step of asking Congress to pass stalled cybersecurity legislation. At first the Obama administration was the slow actor, taking a year to tell Congress which pending measures the president would enact. Now, with pressure to pass other bills, including a Dec. 23 deadline for deficit reduction legislation, the House and Senate are unlikely to agree on comprehensive reforms this year, experts say.
Obama cyber czar Howard Schmidt on Friday tried to light a fire, writing on the White House blog, "Unfortunately, time is not on our side. Since the White House delivered the administration's proposal to Congress, a number of new security breaches have been reported. We need congressional leaders to move forward with a cross-committee and bipartisan approach."
Sticking points remain over the degree of power the Homeland Security Department ought to have to regulate protections for critical infrastructure companies, including energy and financial services firms. House Republicans are pushing for voluntary incentives, such as tax credits -- not regulations -- to encourage compliance with recommended safeguards.
Schmidt also shared some new information, saying that a couple of weeks ago, administration officials "had a very encouraging meeting with a bipartisan group of Senators that ended with agreement to work together to enact cybersecurity legislation as soon as possible. The time is ripe to make proposal into law, and give the government and private sector the extra tools needed to fight those who would harm us." The White House post made no mention of talks with House members.