Brazil cracks down on sat-hackers who bounce ham signals off US military satellites

Brazilian radio-cops are handing out $20,000 fines to satellite hackers who bounce their ham signals off FLTSATCOM -- an array of disused US military satellites -- using them as range-extenders for purposes as diverse as trucker-chatter to avoiding the logging cops in illegal Amazon logging operations:

To use the satellite, pirates typically take an ordinary ham radio transmitter, which operates in the 144- to 148-MHZ range, and add a frequency doubler cobbled from coils and a varactor diode. That lets the radio stretch into the lower end of FLTSATCOM's 292- to 317-MHz uplink range. All the gear can be bought near any truck stop for less than $500. Ads on specialized websites offer to perform the conversion for less than $100. Taught the ropes, even rough electricians can make Bolinha-ware.

"I saw it more than once in truck repair shops," says amateur radio operator Adinei Brochi (PY2ADN) "Nearly illiterate men rigged a radio in less than one minute, rolling wire on a coil."

Brochi, who assembled his first radio set from spare parts at 12, has been tracking the Brazilian satellite hacking problem (.pdf) for years.

Brochi says the Pentagon's concerns are obvious.

"If a soldier is shot in an ambush, the first thing he will think of doing will be to send a help request over the radio," observes Brochi. "What if he's trying to call for help and two truckers are discussing soccer? In an emergency, that soldier won't be able to remember quickly how to change the radio programming to look for a frequency that's not saturated."

The Great Brazilian Sat-Hack Crackdown

(Photo: Divulgação/Polícia Federal)


  1. Corporations and governments alike could gain a lot of positive PR by opening unused bandwith on defunct satellites. A strong argument can be made against this, as the article mentions, when in an emergency an outdated system can be used as a fall back. That will be important in both military and civilian applications.

    Now, if the satellites were truly no longer being used, even as a redundancy (hundreds of satellites are never deorbited),and still maintained a usable profile, let ham operators discover the latent abilities in them then sure, let them go all out.

    Maybe not so much for thieves trying to avoid the law though.

  2. This is some really cool technology. Too bad it’s being used for illegal logging. I wonder if this sort of thing could be used for getting internet access to remote parts of the world.

  3. I wouldn’t characterize signals emanating from modified ham radio equipment as being “ham signals” (from your intro). There was no indication from the Wired article that hams were responsible for the transmissions, and the article clearly stated that the signals are not in the ham frequencies. On the flip side, hams commonly have frequencies dedicated to amateur radio hijacked by unlicensed radio pirates (a real problem in the 28 mHz band during sunspot cycle peaks).

  4. Heh. Just read this on Wired and wondered if it would make it here.

    Hmmm, so basically, U.S. military comms satellites are open relays, hanging in geosynchronous orbit, with traffic being transmitted in encrypted form. Then, all you would have to do to shut down all satellite-routed U.S. military comms traffic would be to point a satellite dish at each of the handful of satellites covering your area, and beam noise across the spectrum of frequencies used? (At least until they triangulated your position and you were bombed out of existence.)

    Since this is such an obvious scenario, they must have a planned response. I’d love to know what that would be.

  5. US Military should knew that security by obscurity isn’t. How can they leave them wide-open, without any authentication, encryption or timers and then claim it’s others’ fault? And leave them open to jamming so easily?

  6. @1, @7 – FLTSATCOM was a 1970s-design system meant to be used with relatively simple UHF radios. Lack of access control was the price paid for simplicity and ease of use. I’ve seen 1970s-era crypto units, and it was not exactly envisaged that a Navy SEAL team would be carrying one around.

    Look up MILSTAR for a more modern military satcom system that does incorporate encrypted access, although at the price of very complex and expensive satellites.

    @5 – if you look at this patent for improvements in anti-jamming systems for communication satellites, you’ll get an idea for what was known in the open press about how such systems worked back in 2001. To quote from the patent:

    In order to eliminate or reduce the effects of jamming signals in both hostile and friendly scenarios, it is known to employ nulling antenna systems that detect the presence of a jamming signal, and provide an antenna null in the antenna radiation or reception pattern so that the jamming signal does not significantly affect the uplink signal. Particularly, nulling antenna systems are able to determine the direction of the jamming signal and create a null or void in the radiation pattern of the antenna so that it in effect does not see the jamming signal. In order to be able to block or null the jamming signal so that it does not affect the ability to transmit the downlink signal, it is necessary to determine the location of the signal, whether it be from an in-beam or out-of-beam jamming source, and then provide the null at that location.

  7. FLTSATCOM — an array of disused US military satellites — If they were, in fact, disused then we wouldn’t be worried about pinned-down soldiers using them to radio for help, would we? Are they disused or not?

  8. @9, i found that confusing also, but it looks like Doctorow for some reason thought they were disused (which would negate the whole point of the Wired article). In fact, “As the original FLTSAT constellation of four satellites fell out of service, the Navy launched a more advanced UFO satellite (for Ultra High Frequency Follow-On) to replace them. Today, there are two FLTSAT and eight UFO birds in geosynchronous orbit. Navy contractors are working on a next-generation system called Mobile User Objective System beginning in September 2009.

    Until then, the military is still using aging FLTSAT and UFO satellites.”

  9. #7: They’re left wide open probably to allow a soldier abroad to use them as fast as possible using normal electronic parts. Efficient encryption requires going digital which is a no-no if you’re quick assembling a transmitter rig to call for help.

  10. “Varact’er diode”? But I hardly even…

    (In a few hours when I’m more awake I’ll come back and say something more substantial).

  11. Ham signals are signals generated by licensed amateur radio operators.

    THIS is illegal activity using modified radio gear that was originally intended for legal amateur radio use.

    The signals being generated are NOT “ham signals”.

    Defining them as “ham signals” is misleading and detrimental to amateur radio.

    Modified military radios are not putting out “military signals” are they? -of course not.

    So how about a little re-wording, huh?

  12. Another sketchy term: “disused”.

    That’s defined as “abandoned”, but later in the actual article, it’s implied that the satellites are used by the military in emergency situations. They are “underused”, maybe, but based on the article the satellites don’t seem to be abandoned by the military, so “disused” doesn’t fit.

  13. @12

    The wording was accurate to convey the story. Not everyone is beholden to the International Ham Radio Operators Association public-relations stylebook.

    There was no slight implied to your hobby, please be less sensitive and quit trying to sanitize language.


  14. The wording was accurate to convey the story.

    No, it’s really not. We have a word for broadcasters operating outside of authorized frequencies, and it’s not “ham”, it’s “pirate”. Whether or not the law is optimal, some people do make an effort to work within it, and it’s only accurate – not to mention polite – to distinguish them from those who do not.

  15. I doubt the “ham radio” description is accurate, given that the satellite payloads have onboard processing to translate between uplink and downlink formats. Presumably there’s something more going on here.

    Lincoln Laboratory was asked to support Milstar development by building two Air Force communications satellite (FLTSAT) EHF Packages (FEPs). The communications capabilities of an FEP, when installed on TRW’s Air Force UHF/SHF communications satellite, are a subset of those of a full Milstar satellite payload. The first FEP was integrated with FLTSAT-7, which was launched on 4 December 1986; the second was launched in 1989 as part of FLTSAT-8. The electronics and antenna assemblies of each FEP were built by Lincoln Laboratory under very tight power (305 watts) and mass (111 kilograms) constraints, so that they would be compatible with the existing Air Force satellite design. The FEP also has facilitated the early operational test and evaluation of the Milstar EHF/SHF terminals being developed by the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The complexity of an FEP communications system is far greater than that of the LES-8 or -9 satellites, even though the FEP has fewer parts. Integrated circuits in the early 1980s, when the FEP design choices were made, were more sophisticated than when LES-8 and -9 were designed in the early 1970s.

    The major innovation in the FEP was a computer-based resource controller that establishes data channels operating at different data rates, via different antenna beams and other means, to support the communications needs of individual users. The onboard access controller receives requests for user service from each user terminal’s computer. The controller in turn sets up the requested services and informs the user terminals’ computers of its actions via a downlink order wire. Once a channel has been set up, the FEP converts uplink message formats to downlink message formats and retransmits user data via either or both of the FEP’s two antenna beams. Although the computer-to-computer dialogs between the FEP and the user terminals are complex, the required interactions between human and machine are user friendly and can be performed easily by terminal operators.

    The experience gained in operating the Lincoln Experimental Satellite Operations Center for the control of LES-8 and -9 in orbit was directly applicable to the task of controlling an FEP in orbit. The greater sophistication of the FEP (compared to the LES-8 or -9) has resulted in a much lower workload in the FEP Operations Center than in the Lincoln Experimental Satellite Operations Center, where any change in the configuration of the satellite’s communications system requires human intervention. The resource controller in the orbiting FEP carries out most of its computer-to-computer transactions with users and would-be users without supervisory intervention. Two FEP Operations Centers have been built. One is installed permanently at Lincoln Laboratory; the other, transportable but by no means mobile, has been installed at a Navy facility in Maine. (The Navy is the operational manager of the FEP Communications System.)

  16. Pirates are something different. Calling unauthorized system use piracy is a mind game the RIAA and friends are pulling on the eloi. When you do it, you are helping the RIAA and their ilk.

    FleetSatCom is not “disused”. It’s very little used at the present time, but it’s more like a married man’s penis than like a bull’s nipples.

  17. well the obvious solution is to restrict the manufacture and sale of radio transmitters, just like guns.

  18. Several minutes googling found roughly a dozen definitions of “ham radio,” and not one restricted the term to “licensed and legal.”

  19. Problem here is the use of non monitored frequencies in order to make illegal businesses.

    To me it seems to be a back door that was discovered by pirates that devised a criminal use for it. Nothing to do with the idea of freedom of communication or anything like that.

  20. There’s no Off switch?
    If the satellites are ‘disused’, why can’t they be shut down?
    Stupid design otherwise.

    If you disuse your car, are you going to leave it out on the street with the doors unlocked and they keys in the ignition? I think not.

  21. obviously they leave them open to monitor communications. The CIA needs and uses criminals all around the planet. It’s a tacit agreement: use the satellite to steal in your country, but when we come calling and want information or someone’s death: you better deliver.

  22. Several minutes googling found roughly a dozen definitions of “ham radio,” and not one restricted the term to “licensed and legal.”

    That’s funny, I googled “ham radio definition” and every one linked “ham radio” to “amateur radio”. The Amateur Radio Service requires a license and is regulated in international law. Seems pretty restricted to the term “licensed and legal” to me.

  23. @21

    You just committed the fallacy of equivocation. Changing a word to a proper noun changes the meaning.

    Amateur radio and the Amateur Radio Association are not the same thing.

    By definition, anyone using a radio who is not a professional radio operator is an amateur.

  24. #12:

    Wow, what kind of soldiers are you hanging about with that make radio transmitters on the ground (out of twine and gum, presumably)? Soldiers are given a radio, they rarely need to start breaking out the soldiering (ha!) iron.


    “Anyone who uses a radio who is not a professional radio operator is an amateur.”

    Of course in that “amateur” means “opposite of professional” but it’s equally a fallacy of equivocation to assume that because you’re putting two words together the individual parts still mean the same as they do separately. It becomes a phrase in combination. You can generally split phrases up to find out what they mean but sometimes it’s not how it works. Sadly the only example that comes to mind just now is “bad ass” which, as a matter of fact, doesn’t refer to a malicious donkey and looking at the two words separately will just confuse you.

  25. Let’s cut to the chase: Where are the English language HOWTOs for creating and using Bolinha equipment elsewhere in the world? Can the hardware be purchased on eBay?

    With the coming econocalypse, long-distance off-grid telecommunications will become extremely valuable for coordinating the movement of supplies. (Echoes of barter networks in Zimbabwe due to their own hyperinflation experience.)

  26. Yay, ZUZU! I was worried about you!

    Though most of the time I disagreed with you, I find your entirely self-consistent individuality refreshing and challenging!

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