Air Force to Let Hackers Hijack an Orbiting Satellite At Defcon 2020

The move is part of the organization's attempts to beef up cybersecurity.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Last month, at the Defcon hacker conference the Air Force brought an F-15 fighter-jet data system. It did this to give security researchers the opportunity to spot its vulnerabilities.


 Now, the government organization is saying that next year it will bring a satellite.

Embracing external experts

“We have to get over our fear of embracing external experts to help us be secure. We are still carrying cybersecurity procedures from the 1990s,” told WIRED Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics.

“We have a very closed model. We presume that if we build things behind closed doors and no one touches them, they’ll be secure. That might be true to some degree in an analog world. But in the increasingly digital world, everything has software in it.”

Even though the Air Force has its own internal cybersecurity team, it can always use the extra help. That's where Defcon hackers come in.

A call for submissions

The Air Force will put out a call for submissions for hackers who think they can hijack a satellite. Then, a number of researchers will be selected to try out their ideas six months before Defcon. The winners from that group will be flown out to Defcon for a live hacking competition.

There are no details yet on which satellite will be involved or the amount of the final cash award. But the opportunity is an exciting one nonetheless. As for the Air Force, this is an opportunity to test the satellite's security during its design phase. 

“We want to hack in design, not after we’ve built,” said Roper. “The right place to do it is when that flat-sat equivalent exists for every system. Let the best and brightest come tear it up, because the vulnerabilities are less sensitive then. It’s not an operational system. It’s easier to fix. There’s no reason not to do it other than the historical fear that we have letting people external to the Air Force in.”

Want to hear even more exciting news? Roper says he is doing his best to bring an airplane to Defcon. He simply has not been able to find a big enough room yet.

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