March 07, 2001, 8:58 AM — Defense contractor Exigent International Inc. last week disclosed that an unknown number of hackers broke into a U.S. Navy computer system and made off with source code that controls dozens of military and commercial satellite systems around the world.
The Melbourne, Fla.-based company said in a statement issued Friday that the incident, which occurred Dec. 24, may have compromised a small portion of an older version of its OS/COMET software that was stored on a computer at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington. OS/COMET is commercial software that allows ground station operators to monitor satellite systems and communicate commands to those systems.
"Only a portion of an older version of the source code was downloaded," said B.R. Smedley, Exigent's chairman and CEO, in a statement. "Because one of our government customers was the target of this cyber crime, we are working closely with them, as well as domestic law enforcement and international organizations to remedy the breach of security."
However, experts agree that it is unclear how much damage the compromise has done to the security of dozens of military navigation and commercial communications satellites that use the software. Although the FBI has declined to comment on the investigation, the incident has been traced to systems in Sweden and a university in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
"Hypothetically, the source code might allow an adversary to identify flaws that could be exploited at a later date to disrupt communications," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "But that's a lot easier said than done."
Allen Thomson, a former CIA scientist and an avid satellite tracker, said although the OS/COMET software is now a commercial product, it started as a classified defense program in the 1980s. "I suppose that if the control systems using it left themselves open to penetration, possession of the source code could help figure out how to write malicious commands that could be sent to the satellites," he said.
In addition to the Air Force's 24 NAVSTAR global positioning system (GPS) satellites, OS/COMET is used by the entire constellation of more than 70 satellites owned by Iridium LLC. The software is also used by several NASA programs, direct broadcast and Internet satellite systems operated by DACOM, one of the largest telecommunications companies in Korea, and Food Automation-Service Techniques Inc., a Stratford, Conn.-based manufacturer of electronic controls to major restaurant chains and commercial appliance manufacturers.