back to article US BACKDOORED our satellites, claim UAE

A French contract to supply intelligence satellites to the United Arab Emirates could be cancelled, with the UAE claiming it's discovered backdoors in US-supplied components of the birds. Defence News, which broke the story, claims that the $US930 million contract could be scrapped, according to high-level UAE sources, if the …


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  1. ecofeco Silver badge

    All your base are...

    Well, you know the rest.

    Mine's the one with secret lapel button mike and Zippo micro camera. ------->>

    1. Wzrd1 Silver badge

      Re: All your base are...

      How pitiful!

      Mine are e-dust and assorted nano sensor platforms.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      European manufacturers putting in backdoors for the US?

      Come on, they are doing it for themselves, then they'll sell the access to the highest bidder?

      It actually more likely to be poor programming or an update interface.

      1. WatAWorld

        Re: No

        From the linked article:

        "A high-level UAE source said the two high-resolution Pleiades-type Falcon Eye military observation satellites contained two specific US-supplied components that provide a back door to the highly secure data transmitted to the ground station."


        "France operates the Pleiades spy satellite in what is viewed as a critical piece of the nation’s sovereignty. Given that core competence, it seemed strange that France would use US technology, although there is an agreement between Paris and Washington over transfer of capabilities, analysts said."


        "The French negotiations with the US on the technology for the UAE would have been sensitive. For example, when the US sold spy satellites to Saudi Arabia, Israel wanted to limit the resolution level in the payload, the second specialist said."

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      They have the oil

      We have the flat caps we must doff

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    it's like prison. You don't get to say no but if you're lucky, you can pick the least painful

    Since the backdoor was discovered, delegates have been shuffling between Russia and Abu Dhabi, presumably to seek alternative sources if the contract is canned.

    Because the Russians would never put build a tap into satellites they supply now, would they ?

    1. WatAWorld

      Re: it's like prison. You don't get to say no but if you're lucky, you can pick the least painful

      You'd expect it from the Russians.

      But the Russians have fewer skills and resources with which to hide their backdoors.

      Russia probably buys most of its chips from other nations, for example.

      1. Tom 13

        Re: Russians have fewer skills

        It's one thing to regard a Ruskie with undying suspicion, but never underestimate their skills.

        Some of the best programming ever done for HP was done by a Russian. HP couldn't afford/wouldn't pay for the source code. Long after they'd lost track of where he was they wanted the source code but couldn't locate him again. So they just kept producing the ROMs for their integrators not being able to reproduce the algorithms on their PCs. IIRC it was the 3396. I worked for a company that wanted to write some software that pulled data out of it. The data packing algorithm was even better than encrypting the data. They couldn't move forward with it until they signed NDAs and cross-licensing agreements with HP. HP got a decent program from mine, but mine got the better deal. We'd never have written a program as good as the one we did without their guidance and assistance.

    2. WatAWorld

      Re: it's like prison. You don't get to say no but if you're lucky, you can pick the least painful

      The linked article says that Gulf countries like to spread their dependence around so that they are not solely dependent on the USA.

      Plus Russia has all the oil it needs in its own oil fields, Russia has no need to rip-off Gulf nations as part of its national energy policy.

      "Generally, Arabian Gulf countries split arms buys to reduce dependence on the US, the specialist said. The UAE flies the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Dassault Mirage 2000-9, while the Saudis operate the Boeing F-15, as well as the Tornado and Typhoon."

  3. Bloakey1

    Damn Foreigners.

    I used to live there and I can't see them canning the French kit.

    The 13 half brigade ( 13 eme DBLE ) of the Foreign Legion is now based in Abu Dhabi. So their ties are very close. They have a lot of other strategic assets out there as well.

    Does this mean other French satellites are compromised?

    Ooh la la, les Ricaines encore.

    1. Wzrd1 Silver badge

      Re: Damn Foreigners.

      To be honest, I have heartburn over their capability of detecting such kit.

      The entire region is addicted to hiring the cheapest of Indian labor, including the more professional fields.

      Sorry, I see this as a bid in a contract negotiation. Especially as they have not disclosed the mythical breach, which anyone else would have done to back up the claim.

      But then, I've spent a half decade negotiating with Arabs in the region.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Damn Foreigners.

        quote: "Especially as they have not disclosed the mythical breach"

        Educated guess - using the known to be backdoored FIPS elliptic curve RNG as the only choice and implementing it in hardware. Would not be surprised if the cypher is RC4 too.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Damn Foreigners.

        "The entire region is addicted to hiring the cheapest of Indian labor, including the more professional fields."

        Not for high end technology requirements - the Arabs well recognise that degrees from Indian 3rd world universities are comparitively worthless, and that the vast majority of Indian IT certifications are actually passed by third parties, involved bribery, or were learned by rote in a cramming bootcamp with zero practical experience.

        Hence why there is such a large and lucrative market for UK IT contractors over there when skilled and experienced staff are required.

        1. dan1980

          Re: Damn Foreigners.

          . . . and why most of the engineers and architects working on the grand building projects are European and American.

  4. Mikel

    Never happened before

    Wonder how many spy sats are already up there doing double duty. Kind of a pain to pull them down to check.

  5. Don Jefe

    It's kind of difficult for me to buy into this, it simply doesn't make sense. There are about 7.57 million ways the UAE could benefit from a discreet conversation about this with France and the US and nothing much to be gained by exposing it. It's actually so dumb to expose this publicly that it's almost criminally negligent. A country founded yesterday afternoon has sense enough to know that managing this in public isn't the way to deal with this.

    Regardless of the facts, the US certainly had this coming to them. Nobody is going to believe any rebuttal from the US and everybody is going to assume this is true. That's what happens when you get caught being sneaky, nobody believes you anymore.

    1. Wzrd1 Silver badge

      The laugh is, it's most likely a ploy to get a better deal on subsequent contracts.

      Meanwhile, the ignorant think that *only* the US is spying, not realizing that every nation on the plant with any level of technological capability *has long* been doing so.

      It's only that the US never met a secret it could keep, much to the chagrin of the UK.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        but none with the level of outreach and success the US has. You seem to be trying to pushing the issue onto others.

    2. dan1980

      Local politics?

      Sure, the UAE Council members are largely fixed as the hereditary rulers of the emirates so no real pressure there but there is always public image to be considered in politics, even in countries without a democratically-elected government.

      Or perhaps it is believed that such 'backdooring' would be revealed sooner or later and there would be public backlash so better to be open?

      But it does seem a bit odd as the UAE has always had good relations with the US.

    3. WatAWorld

      Could you explain how in the world the UAE could benefit from a discrete conversation over this.

      Maybe they could get a bribe to be quiet, but that would only benefit the bureaucrat concerned, not the UAE.

      Borrowing the good old USA tactic of the little guy going to the press when he's up against a big powerful enemy seems to be the best solution.

      1. Don Jefe

        It's not about bribes, it's about non-monetary compensation historically offered when people get caught spying. As others have noted many times, all countries spy on other countries. It's acknowledged and accepted as a major component of international relations. You spy on others and try and defend your secrets and others do the same. What has never been, and will never be tolerated, is getting caught spying. You simply can't get caught and getting caught red handed, as opposed to told by a 3rd party is doubly bad.

        Were the events in this story real (we don't know yet) you've got two major powers and global suppliers of defense and intelligence systems who would see every customer in the last 20 years up in arms and doubting the security of their systems. Pending contracts would be paused, as has happened in China, and future sales as well as access to new markets would be threatened.

        Nobody, absolutely nobody, can ignore that kind of leverage. You've got the traditional compensation for getting caught to divvy out and you've got immensely powerful companies whose bottom lines will be impacted. If you play all your cards at the outset and blab publicly you'll get nothing as you've done all the damage you can do. The information is out and getting a letter of apology is too much compensation.

        But if you don't throw all your information out there, you keep the caught persons on the defensive and you'll get the concessions you name. Traditionally those concessions are things like preferred trade status, customs fast tracking, guaranteed low interest loans on major purchases of things like airliners, access to defense systems you normally wouldn't be allowed to buy, as well as less tangible, but equally valuable things like privileged access to political leaders, safe harbor and secure transport inside normally hostile areas, access to satellite data or other information on your enemies and weird stuff like VIP parking at big events, lifetime season tickets to sports or art events, huge quantities of your finest alcohols and more.

        All those things are common 'fines' for getting caught spying and they can all be yours if you keep your mouth shut. Just like getting caught spying is unacceptable, so is one government airing the dirty laundry of another government publicly. Hell, airing someone else's dirty laundry in public doesn't even happen very often between two countries engaged in war against the other. It's extremely bad taste and has serious repercussions that only a fool or a lunatic would ignore.

        Go find an international policy professor and ask them about this. This just isn't the way things are done. Ever. Nobody handles international relations like this. Which is what leads me to seriously doubt the veracity of this story.

        1. Tom 13

          @ Don Jefe

          But what if the oil on which you are sitting and your known good cooperation with said State in the War on Terror already gets you those things?

          I concur this isn't the way these things are normally handled. But it is possible somebody got miffed enough to cut off the nose to spite the face.

  6. JeffyPoooh


    Even if they weren't intentionally "backdoored" (vaguely disturbing nomenclature, ...anyway...), Nation State Advanced hackers could 'pwn' them in an easy afternoon anyway. So it's completely pointless.

  7. Winkypop Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Non Standard Architecture

    Better get used to it.

    There appears to be no escape.

  8. Mark 85
    Black Helicopters

    Scapegoat of the week ploy?

    We used to hear the Russians were behind things, then the Taiwanese, then the Chinese. Now the USA. Ok... who's next? The Indians? The Pakastanis? You buy equipment of a sensitive nature from a third party and expect it to not have a backdoor (or whatever)? Ok.. forget that bit of paranoia...

    The really odd thing is, the contract was signed a mere 6 months ago with delivery in 2018. There's probably a final design but sourcing and building probably hasn't been started. So the design specs included the "backdoor"? The initial design? Something is definitely fishy here...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Scapegoat of the week ploy?

      If it uses the backdoored elliptic curve RNG it is backdoored at design level. If it is implemented in hardware it is not fixable either.

    2. Don Jefe

      Re: Scapegoat of the week ploy?

      I seriously doubt there is anything close to a final spec yet. They'll likely have the requirements locked in, but not the actual specs to meet those requirements.

      The design and production of non-science related satellites & 'stuff' is done in a far more traditional, business like manner than the science missions the public is familiar with. While the secrecy component is a little more strict, everything else is traditional manufacturing.

      You start at the outside and work your way towards the center; in layers is a decent analogy. As work on one layer nears completion the specs for the next later are put together and address the reality of the previous layer and to review any technological developments that may have occurred while the previous layer as being built as well as addressing technology failures like in a proposed encryption standard. You try to put the latest and greatest into each satellite and to do that you wait until the last minute possible to nail down specs.

      We have quite a few aerospace clients and a significant revenue stream in housing and rehousing sensor assemblies and mounts for satellites. We've got projects as far out as 2021 but we won't actually design or build anything until usually within 6-9 months of the scheduled launch. Too many things change on each satellite to do anything before it's absolutely necessary. I'm not aware of any satellites that are identical, each new satellite is an entirely new project.

      The way satellites are designed is also why it takes so long to put one together. The actual assembly of all the different parts isn't that difficult, it's that each 'layer' undergoes extremely comprehensive review right before time to build that layer starts.

      In other words, I tend to agree, something is fishy. If the satellite was being built/sourced from countries new to the business it would be one thing, but UAE has plenty of resources for proper design and both France and the US have very strong capabilities in the aerospace sector. They wouldn't be involved with a project that breaks every single rule of satellite design. Not only would it be a technical misstep, the intense and perpetual review of each subsystem is a key revenue component.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Unfortunately, these components aren't something that you can normally source (GaAs chips...). So it would most likely come down to picking who's going to be listening in on the data streams, IMNSHO. Frankly, I'd pick the Brits rather than 'my own' (US).

    1. John Hughes

      Re: Components...

      > Frankly, I'd pick the Brits rather than 'my own' (US).

      That choice is unavailable. GCHQ is a bought and paid for subsidiary of the NSA. Anything the Brits know the Yanks know.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Components...

        Anything the Brits know the Yanks know.

        Or so we want the Yanks to think, anyway...

      2. Tom 13

        Re: Anything the Brits know the Yanks know.

        I hope not. We leak like a sieve over here. And I'd like to know there's at least one adult making decisions about international events. Yes I'd prefer it was us, but since I know right now it isn't, my second preference is a Brit.

  10. Medixstiff

    Speaking of which...

    Did NBN Co. tick the "No NSA backdoor" option on the satellites we ordered?

    1. Elmer Phud

      Re: Speaking of which...

      "Did NBN Co. tick the "No NSA backdoor" option on the satellites we ordered?"

      Nah, they didn't untick it.

      They also now have thier 250th download of Chrome and a browser where you can't se the active area as it's covered up with 'Ask' toolbars.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Surely the first rule of building systems that are secure against spying by foreign intelligence agencies is to develop it all in-house, with your own trusted experts. Any system purchased from a foreign country that has intelligence agencies, whose job is to spy on you, can never be fully trusted.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But France aren't spying on them. America are.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        But France aren't spying on them. America are.

        I really wouldn't suggest you put any money on that at all. Although if France are providing 'technical assistance' over the lifetime of the program, that just means they're sharing the intelligence. i.e. France provide the tech and the intel, Abu Dhabi provide the cash.

    2. Tom 13

      Re: is to develop it all in-house

      I don't know that there are any Western powers or even Western friendly powers that could do that. China maybe, but even that I'm not sure about.

  12. John 98

    I doubt UAE can win. Any bird they buy will have US, Russian, Chinese, whoever's chips in it. And design/build your own using only your own relatives in their spare time (who else can one trust?) is a slightly ambitious project.

  13. WatAWorld

    My question:

    Are there any western-made aircraft or spacecraft or communications systems that the USA has not put backdoors in?

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: My question:

      Yes, the Sopwith Camel.

      The Tiger Moth and the Gypsy Moth are currently being investigated on suspicion of being backdoored.

      Any other questions?

  14. Anomalous Cowshed

    "FUD" by Anomalous Cowshed

    Jones was sitting at his desk, smoking a cigar - a habit which he'd fought hard to preserve, despite the endless hints dropped by a number of ladies from the typing pool. But then Jones was a gruff individual, not the kind of man to give in readily to such female pressure. He also kept a bottle of bourbon locked in a drawer under his desk which he would bring out to toast a special occasion. Not today though.

    The telephone rang. "Mr. Jones, it's Philips. We've finally cracked it!" said an excited voice on the other end of the line.

    Jones grunted. The other man continued "We've got our universal transliterator. We've tested it on Chang, and it relayed the meaning of what he was saying in Mandarin, the exact meaning. You should have seen his face - I mean Chang's. He was utterly flabbergasted."

    "Bring it in" said Jones, sceptically. He found these kinds of excitable claims made over the phone particularly annoying. If what Philips was saying was true, then he should like to find out at first hand. Jones took out the key to that drawer under his desk from his pocket and laid it on top of the desk itself, just in case. They'd been trying to develop the Transliterator for years. Yet no matter how many resources and manpower they threw at it, no matter how much processing power, memory, and clever programming they tried to incorporate into it, it was always a failure. A dismal failure which was diverting precious funds from other, more down-to-earth projects...

    Ten minutes later, there was a sharp knock at the door, and before waiting for him to say "enter", two men dressed in lab coats erupted into the room. One was Philips, a gaunt, bespectacled scientist who today was wearing a most uncharacteristic enthusiastic expression. The other, a gentleman of Asian appearance. Chang, no doubt, thought Jones. The Asian-looking man was also showing signs of glee.

    "We've got it" said Philips while his colleague nodded furiously. "It works, it really does!"

    "Show me" said Jones. He grabbed hold of a remote control and switched on the huge, concealed flat-panel television integrated into the wall opposite. An attractive woman appeared, sitting rather formally at a magnificent desk. She was facing right into the screen, and appeared to be talking in a deliberate and solemn manner at the men in the room. It was a news programme. She was conveying weighty matters and it seemed that the very fate of the world hinged upon each word that flowed out of her lips.

    “Run it” said Jones with a nod of the head towards the screen. Philips walked up to the desk, took something out of his lab coat’s pocket and set it down on Jones’ desk.

    It was not at all what Jones had expected: a small spherical device, silvery all over, with no apparent connections, whether for power or anything else.

    “It’s new technology, Mr. Jones” said Philips proudly, noting his boss’s incredulous glance. “We’ve manage to develop a thristor chip which demodulates reality in the quantic plane…”

    “Just show me how it works” interrupted Jones, who wanted to avoid being swamped by what were to him incomprehensible technical specifications. “You can tell me about the innards later.”

    “Yes, Sir” said Philips. He gently touched the device. The men in the room were silent, while the woman continued to talk at them / at the hidden camera in front of her.

    Suddenly, there was a beep. The sphere on the desk glowed purple.

    Jones turned the television off. Philips then touched the sphere again. There was an awkward moment’s silence.

    Then suddenly, the sphere began to talk! At first Jones was amazed. However, he and the others soon realised that something was wrong. The machine kept repeating the same incomprehensible sound – a single syllable: “Fud. Fud. Fud…” Philips and Chang exchanged horrified glances.

    “Fud. Fud. Fud. Fud.” said the little machine.

    Jones took the key to the drawer which concealed the bottle of bourbon, and pocketed it with a tinge of regret. He felt slightly annoyed, but also quite amused at how disconcerted the others looked.

    He gave them a look as severe as he could muster. “Back to the drawing book, gentlemen. Thank you for bringing it in”. They immediately caught the hint.

    “Fud. Fud. Fud.” said the little sphere as Philips pocketed it in a hurry, trying frantically to turn it off, without success, and left the room with Chang in tow. “Fud. Fud. Fud.” it kept saying as they made their way down the corridor.

  15. gollux

    Freedom from backdooring

    Belongs to them what owns their own aerospace program with launch facilities, their own chip fabbers, electronics manufacturers and satellite manufacturing.

    Outsourcing is the first step in losing national security.

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