back to article Satellite-hacking boffin sees the unseeable

White-hat hacker Adam Laurie knows better than to think email, video-on-demand, and other content from Sky Broadcasting and other satellite TV providers is a private matter between him and the company. That's because he's spent the past decade monitoring satellite feeds and the vast amount of private information they leak to …


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  1. Pete "oranges" B.


    I had long been aware that it was possible to monitor unencrypted feeds, primarily NASA, but I had no idea so many transmissions were relatively open.

  2. jake Silver badge

    In general ...

    In general, if you don't use strong encryption end-to-end, you can assume that someone, somewhere, is capable of monitoring your communications.

    Unless you're happy shouting the information from the roof-tops, it's probably better to use some form of encryption ... The more you don't want the info known, the stronger the encryption.

    Major exception: please note that outfits like the NSA measure computing power in acres, not Pflops ... They can probably decrypt anything, and in near real time ... Use common sense, try not to be illegal, avoid transmitting anything deemed illegal in your jurisdiction.

  3. Anonymous Coward

    "I can't unsee what I'm not supposed to have seen."

    True, but if you're concerned you might be breaking the law you can stop looking you numpty.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    I'm starting with the man in the mirror

    "Looking at a cake is like looking at the future. Until you've tasted it, what do you really know? And then, of course, it's too late."

  5. Alex

    A resident in the UK, Laurie says he's careful to obey the country's privacy laws.

    While he is able to identify certain traffic as email, for instance, he doesn't actually read the contents of the message. Still, he says it isn't always easy to follow the letter of such laws because they prohibit people from receiving a message if they aren't the intended recipient.

    "It's a bit of a quandary," Laurie says. "You can't tell you're not supposed to see that data until after you see it. I can't unsee what I'm not supposed to have seen."

    ...well as for the privacy laws, I don't think anyone really cares about them anymore, I think its more of a case of "make hay whilst everyone's sat in the dark"

    and as for the quandary, that would be the pandoras box that is privacy!

    goes to show the utter lack of responsibility involved with corporates and personally sensitive information though doesn't it.

    Keep up the good work Laurie!

  6. Mike Banahan

    Feed of Diana's death

    Shock, horror - OMG - an unencrypted feed! Who would have thought that they would ever exist?

    Apart from EVERY F*CKER who had a steerable dish in the nineties. There were hundreds of clear feeds used for TV news gathering, even whole columns dedicated to spotting them in the satellite magazines of the day. On a poor day for official programmes, it was often more fun to point the dish at, say 1 degree west, and watch the UK-US news feeds then see them pop up edited on the news later.

    Now things have gone digital they are more likely to be encrypted but when Diana went titsup that was probably the exception rather than the norm.

    Give us a break.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Illegal to receive a message if you're not the recipient

    On a broadcast-from-space signal that covers the whole UK? How does that work? Surely everyone can get the message?

    Also, I was under the impression that Sky didn't do emails using the dish as you suggest in the article... or was that just "satellite ISPs" in general?

    And why do you need a motorised dish? Couldn't you- if you were a bit cheap- get one of those charts of where to point the dish and point it manually? Which would drop the price to well under £100 with the possibility of upgrading to a motorised solution later.

    Can anyone else see the Gov't cracking down on motorised dishes now? Or anything not very clearly Sky TV branded (anything else is potentially terroristical)?

  8. Bad Beaver

    It goes without saying

    This is of course just another reason to switch all sensible transmissions to Skype.

  9. Damien Cahill

    Hardly new

    Roger Bunny has a column in What Satellite magazine for almost 20 years scanning the sky, looking at news feeds and TV links.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Bit of a quandry?

    Hmmm, I'd say that as rough rule of thumb; if the email is in your inbox, it's meant for you; if you're assembling custom equipment to hack into a satellite feed and monitor packets then the chance that those emails are meant for you can be safely rounded down to NONE.

    Oh, I didn't know that torrent film wasn't meant for me until AFTER I downloaded it! Yeah, I'm sure THAT would work.

    So he spent all that time and effort hacking satellites to NOT snoop/steal that content which breaks privacy/copyright laws? Would the "intellectual excercise" excuse work for anything else? I'm just testing out the state of national security/ bank alarm system/ police response time/ to see what would happen if some bad guy wanted to do XYZ...

    Yes, such a staunch defender of the above, there's a website showing ANYONE who wants to know how to do the same thing!

    Better to stay an annoymous enigma, rather than go public and be forced to make BS excuses.

  11. Icouldbethestig
    Thumb Down


    Protip: Satellite feeds of journo's gossiping, picking their nose and much worse have been broadcast in the clear since telstar first bleeped it's first bleep. Unfiltered, unedited news footage is neither rare or difficult to find, and does not require any special hardware or software.

    There are oodles of websites dedicated to this kind of stuff, and you don't have to be a boffin to understand or exploit it...

  12. Mark Jan

    Shock, horror...really?!

    With "hobbyists" up and down the country watching unencrypted and encrypted satellite channels for free, encryption keys freely available on the internet and whole enryption systems regularly hacked, why is this such big news?

    Adam Laurie isn't doing anything that thousands of barely computer literate bods aren't doing.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Careful Laurie

    unauthorised use of a computer network? you'll be following McKinnon shortley.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    in the middle?

    I don't really see how you could successfully perform a "man in the middle" attack unless you could actually place your equipment in between the satellite and the victim's dish. Perhaps inside a black helicopter?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    White hatted self publicist more like

    Is this the new bluesnarfing?

    Paris. because she knows all about publicity

  16. Sir Runcible Spoon


    I name that film in one - Excalibur.

    Mine's the one with the armour plating and thermal lance in the pocket.

  17. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

    Ho Hum

    It's been done before, yawn, yawn, nothing new to see here ... misses the point; that it is happening now with a lot more personal data being passed around for those who care to see it.

    The police have been beating and fitting up suspects for years, corruption has always existed, so that's a reason not to mention it when it remains a problem ? Old news, not interested ? Maybe some people didn't get the news first time round ?

    PS : El Reg, please never report on starving third worlders or their plight. We know they are starving, old news ( remember Live Aid ? ), not interested, it's not worth mentioning.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    This bloke appears to be doing what the NSA did with Echelon & if it was easy for him with his off-the-shelf gear, imagine how easy it is for the NSA. Having read James Bamford's "The Shadow Factory", he suggested Echelon was old news. However, if such sensitive information is still passing over the airwaves then places like Menworth Hill will still be soaking it up. Combined with the newer interception technologies the NSA must have a pretty good picture of what is going on in the world. From the revelations by ex-NSA employees (if they can be believed) that basically huge amounts of communications traffic was scooped up indiscrimately & just about anything can be listened to, it should concern ordinary people worldwide. Will Obama do anything to roll it back? I don't think so. While he was originally against the Bush administration's wiretapping, he seems to have changed tack since. Certainly the NSA collect info that is crucial in the fight against terrorism & maybe they can't discriminate in what they collect, but things like web-browsing & e-mails should be private.

  19. Steve

    yup nothing new

    I was watching journos screaming "where's my Evian, this isn't Evian!" back in the 90's on spare Eutelsat transponders... Nothing has changed really...

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    feeds are good

    intercepting the feeds from football stadiums before they are rebroadcast by the satellite provider. Free football from across Europe :)

  21. Dani Zaytsev

    Media Whoring

    As others have said, this is old news - and is only being brought up because of someone who appears to crave fame and attention for things a high school pupil could devise needs more stroking.

    People have been feed-hunting since satellite receiving equipment has been available, and then when the Linux-based receivers came out it made things a lot cheaper and easier to do - especially when it comes to actual data streams rather than just DVB-S AV streams.

  22. Anonymous Coward


    "They can probably decrypt anything, and in near real time ... "

    Do you have *any* evidence to back up that ridiculous assertion?

  23. Steen Hive

    Quandry? No.

    It is a civic duty for private individuals in the UK to actively monitor and seek information from the communications of the state and individuals in government and immediately make public any information found. Stalinists like Whaqui and her friends deserve no less. Until their lives are laid bare like yours are, there will be no privacy.

  24. Anonymous Coward


    "They can probably decrypt anything, and in near real time ... "


    Lets see, where to start.

    Every mathematician and cryptographer across the face of the planet who understands AES, the SHA family of algorithms, RSA, and his good friend ElGamal (son of Diffie-Hellman) at all tell us exactly how these algorithms are safe, what their weaknesses are, and even their theoretical ones.

    They all tell us they are safe to use, and the latest encryption technology was developed outside the US, in countries that are neutral in the world's stage.

    If you think that it only takes acres of computers to break high order encryption/signature schemes then you have no sense of the scale involved here. A computer needed to *count* from 0 to 2^256-1 would require more energy than the output of the sun for the rest of its life. That is just to count that high, not to try every decryption key in that range and test the result for a valid decryption.

    Humanity as a whole could never hope to accomplish this, let alone a few acres of computers. Try some research before you spread fear, uncertainty and doubt. Not doing so is a rather harsh insult to anyone who has and a disservice to those that cannot do so and choose to believe you.

  25. Peyton

    Surprising comments

    Surprising as they seem to indicate unfamiliarity with the term "white hack hacker" - these types are trying to stay ahead of the bad guys. Yes, their techniques may be questionable, but this guy reading your email is supposed to be better than the "malicious black hat hacker". Which leads into point 2... yes maybe 20 years ago they were writing about unencrypted tv feeds... but I doubt they mention was bade of unencrypted interwebs - that does add a new twist.

    Still, I agree there's no reason to fret. If you send something across the web unencrypted, you should basically expect that everyone can read it.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Why are Sky pushing out emails on the sat feeds? Are these consumer emails??

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Does this surprise anyone? Any self professed "techie" or "hacker" should hang their head/s in shame if they do not understand the basics of or lack the ability to build microwave/radio receiver equipment. C'mon, it's only a small step up from building Omni directional ants/Yagis and so on. Sheesh.

    I like the bit about not being able/allowed to read the content.....sounds a little reminiscent of what the authorities say re: spying on ~Joe Publics internet/telephony... haha...

    How I miss the days of Phrack/2600 Taran King, Knight Lightning, Mudge et al. When people who called themselves hackers really were just that. Now we have all these `white hat` / `grey hat` numpties, all sucking corporate c*ck. Disgusting.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Mr A. Coward

    "SHA family of algorithms, RSA, and his good friend ElGamal (son of Diffie-Hellman) at all tell us exactly how these algorithms are safe, what their weaknesses are, and even their theoretical ones."

    Yes , because supposedly mathematically secure cryptographic systems have never been broken before due to an unknown flaw being found... oh wait...

  29. Tim

    @ feeds are good

    My mate does that too, not only cos it is free (though the motorised dish & receiver was about £700 installed) but it means he can watch the games without any of the commentators or pundits crapping on ceaselessly. Co-incidentally, he can also get several free channels of bella 24/7 Italian porn in HD over the same system.

  30. Hel

    There is no spoon.

    ---Laurie has also developed software that analyzes hundreds of channels to pinpoint certain types of content, including traffic based on TCP, UDP, or SMTP. The program offers a 3D interface that allows the user to quickly isolate email transmissions, web surfing sessions, or television feeds that have recently been set up.

    There's too much information to view it decoded. After awhile, you don't even see the code, all you see is Blonde, Brunette, Redhead...

  31. Daniel B.

    Feeds for free

    My oh my ... is this article for those born after 1990? Satellite dishes were very very common back in the 80's, and the first half of the 90's over here in Mexico. Most of them had motorized solutions, and were programmed with the preset coords for the good satellites. It was only a matter of having two remotes; but then again, SKY subscribers these days have the same problem.

    @AC 14:10 - Hmm... I see you read your Bruce Schneier well. ;)

    Mine's the one with the geostationary orbit satellite coords in the pocket...

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    @ Boltar

    (Different AC here)...

    I think that the first AC was arguing that raw computing power, even "acres" of computers, are insufficient to brute force decode something like AES. Jake's claim seemed to be that the NSA has enough raw computing power to get the job done.

    True, a previously unknown flaw can lead to a crack (or at least a markedly decreased code space in which to search), and if anyone is going to find it, the NSA has to be among the most likely candidates.

    The same would be said for an intentional, but unrevealed weakness (clipper chip anyone?), hence the black choppers.

  33. Christian Berger

    Before you ask

    There is more you can do with satellites. In fact most US military satellites are completely insecure.

    You just send up your signal and it'll come down on a different frequency.

  34. jake Silver badge

    @ various ACs

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know about the math involved. I teach it, FFS.

    However, the past eight years of extreme paranoia in the US administration has thrown an awful lot of wetware and hardware at the issue of decryption. I personally have no knowledge of what their actual capabilities are, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if my "near real time" speculation wasn't a hair on the conservative side.

    Note the word "probably" in mine. It's there for a reason. I honestly don't know. Neither do you.

    And to the AC who is worried about draining the sun, I suggest you do the math for yourself instead of parroting the words of others. I think you'll find the power required to count that high is several dozen orders of magnitude lower than that ...

  35. Greg Trocchia

    @ jake

    I did the math and here are my results. According to my calculator 2^256 is ~ 1.15 * 10^77 and according to this graph ( ), the output of the Sun since formation is of the order of 10^45 joules, so let's call it 10^46 joules during its lifetime to be generous. By dividing the 10^46 joules by the more than 10^77 digits previously calculated, I get an "energy budget" of 8.6 *10 ^ -32 joules per digit or more than 10 orders of magnitude less than the ~kT limit on irreversible computing for erasing a single bit. So it looks to me as if AC had it right, even counting up through *each* of the 2^256 digits is a task of surpassing difficulty.

  36. jake Silver badge

    @Greg Trocchia

    Thanks! :-)

    Actually, now that I've thought about it, the problem goes a lot further than I first thought when I made my flippant remark ...

    I'm thinking about redundancy, run time, the accumulator(s) required, hardware upgrades on the fly, and zillions of other problems that would crop up over the years ... This is going to make an interesting end of term paper for one of my classes, I think ::evil grin::

    Thanks, AC, and I apologize for the remark.

  37. CTG
    Black Helicopters

    Confidential... yeah, right

    At a conference a few years back, there was a talk by an engineer from CESG (the InfoSec part of GCHQ). Somebody asked him for more technical details of the bit of kit he was demonstrating. He said "No problem, just send me a fax with the details you are after and I'll get back to you". "What's your fax number?" asked the guy in the crowd. "Any number will do." replied the engineer...

  38. ben edwards

    Pacino did it

    Pacino was shown this in Heat, a decade or so ago.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ben edwards

    nop, that was DeNiro

  40. Nick

    Cool, but not that cool.

    Not particularly new news as anyone with a Linux STB (and I'm sure others) has been able to do this for some time. What does sound useful is the visualisation tool which is able to extract the data and 'model' it effectivley. Much easier to highlight and then click on a red blob amongst the stream of ASCII flowing through than it is to spot a HELO or equivalent as it whizzes past at several thousand BPS.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You can't...

    ...stop the signal!

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If you have DVB-S card...

    ...what else are you going to do in those periods when your favourite foreign broadcasters have changed their encryption so you can't watch films for free? I found that satellite Internet traffic was about 80% porn, 15% downloading films/music and about 5% what one might term legitimate use. I got bored with newsfeeeds and reading social networking chatter after a couple of weeks though and the DVB-S card is in a box somewhere.

    This white hack bloke is about 10 years behind the times.

  43. Suburban Inmate
    Black Helicopters

    @ first AC (3rd post)

    "True, but if you're concerned you might be breaking the law you can stop looking you numpty."

    Yeah, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain...

  44. John PM Chappell

    @jake & others

    I see Jake has backed down now but I'm going to observe that this is fuel on the fire of "teachers are pretty crap today" as I appear to have a better grasp of the maths and technical details and I *don't* attempt to teach others about the topic.

    As for the NSA, they can trivially crack some of the piss poor 'encryption' systems but they are stuck, like everyone else, when it comes to brute-force attacks on truly secure systems.

    The GCHQ bloke was making a (quite old) joke, they don't monitor every phone line, etc, to do so is unfeasible anyway. GCHQ really does monitor the entire RF spectrum, however and I have one of the pieces of kit they used to use, sitting in the room where the rest of my radio equipment is. Needless to say they haven't stopped listening, just updated the kit.

    This 'white hat' crap gets up my nose, though, it has to be said and playing with satellite dishes is really, really old hat.

  45. jake Silver badge

    @John PM Chappell

    "I see Jake has backed down"

    Not really, aside from my "draining the sun" crack. And I don't have time at the moment to research the actual power required, vs. lifetime output of the sun. I'll take Greg Trocchia's numbers as back-of-the-envelope good enough until I have time to play around with it myself. As I said, I see a really good end-of-term paper buried in there somewhere ... maybe.

    "but I'm going to observe that this is fuel on the fire of "teachers are pretty crap today""

    Probably. On the other hand, most "crap teachers" teach by rote and strictly follow a curriculum that they don't fully understand ... and never admit to mistakes. Me, I'm human. I make mistakes. I only teach to learn more about a given subject. This includes my work with dogs & horses & grapes/wine.

    "as I appear to have a better grasp of the maths and technical details and I *don't* attempt to teach others about the topic."

    If you've never taught the subject matter, you don't have even half a clue as to how weak a grasp of the subject matter you have. This includes ALL subjects, not just math.

    "GCHQ really does monitor the entire RF spectrum"

    All of it? Really? And here I thought counting to a big number was hard ... but us humans actually have the ability to monitor infinity? Cool! I guess SETI can close down, then.

    In closing, my commentary on the NSA's ability I don't back down from at all. I don't know the truth about what they can and can't decrypt, and neither do you. All we know is what current published theory states. If they know better, they ain't talkin'.

  46. ben edwards


    Ok, maybe it was DeNiro in heat.

    Fact is, it was mature enough for hollywood to squeeze into a script headed by dinosaurs, so why the kerfuffle 10 years later?

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