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Set in the modern day, I was wondering about a possible scenario in which some hackers gain control of many satellites, probably including those specifically for defense purposes, in order to wreak havoc on many cities around the world. What kind of satellites are the easiest to hack, and how can the hackers use them to commit genocide worldwide?

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    $\begingroup$ If only Project Thor was real. Then this would be simple to answer. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Feb 14 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ Hijack the CIA's mind control satellites to alter the composition of chemtrails to a mix that promotes violence and disorder. $\endgroup$ – Grimm The Opiner Feb 14 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ This question isn't even remotely realistic. The amount of infrastructure required would be limited to state level actors and would amount to an act of war. $\endgroup$ – eps Feb 14 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ The amount of infrastructure amounts to "satellite dish and Visual Studio" and, while the technical sophistication of a successful attack is likely to be considerable, computer security in general is so laughable it's almost an oxymoron. $\endgroup$ – imallett Feb 14 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ Some satellites are designed to have deorbit capability at end of life. (eg Iridium satellites afaik). deorbiting a few accurately on major cities would gain at least the attention of all the rest with resultant panic. $\endgroup$ – Russell McMahon Feb 14 at 23:29
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Trigger nuclear war

Hack a military observation satellite and tell it to transmit a signal indicating a nuclear launch by a hostile power. You'll probably need to hit a few concurrently for a convincing signal. After that you just need to sit back and watch the fireworks.

Trigger Kessler Syndrome

You don't need to knock them out of the sky, you just need to knock one into another. I don't know if there's enough materiel in orbit for the full Kessler cascade but the theory is well known and has been for decades. Generate enough debris and the species is effectively bound to the atmosphere for decades. No satellite communication, no GPS, only basic weather forecasting, (no spy satellites). The damage is incalculable.

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    $\begingroup$ It could take a very long time for Kessler syndrome to disrupt everything. Clouds of debris hang around in their orbits; smashing up LEO won't touch GPS or geosync altitude stuff, for example. It kicks the problems 5, 10, 20 years down the road when stuff expires and is unreplaceable. And as with the above mention of hacking GPS satellites, hacking nuclear warning systems is not likely to come up very high on the list of "satellites easiest to hack", which the OP was interested in. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Feb 14 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ @StarfishPrime, I don't disagree, but it was necessary as a counterpoint to those stating you couldn't do any real damage. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 14 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf, that's minor for most purposes, just a loss of efficiency, losing weather forecasting is the major one in that set. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 14 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ Triggering nuclear war is the only possible answer. Kessler Syndrome will in no way shape or form cause satellites to "commit genocide worldwide". $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Feb 14 at 19:32
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    $\begingroup$ The Ballistic Missile Early Warning System uses land-based radar. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Feb 14 at 23:45
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Actually hacking a satellite is not the easiest thing. Most use encrypted communications, they will only be overhead for a short while (unless geo stationary) The command and control systems will not be documented, and the existing control infrastructure will be very well secured. Older satellites might be easier (just because threats have evolved)

On the damage you could do, assuming you could hack a satellite. Genocide will be a tall order. I'm going to break down into a couple of categories.

Loud/impressive Hack the US Military communications satellites. Redirect a few drones to your target area and fire off some missiles. This is probably the option that would give you the largest instant casualties.

Loud/civilian Make every communication satellite broadcast white noise on all possible frequencies. while it wouldn't be all that damaging, cutting communications would cause a lot of problems.

Subtle/Short Term Subtly adjust the clocks in the navigation satellites. Aircraft coming into places they shouldn't, boats crashing into rocks, trucks delivering things to the wrong places. It wouldn't take long for people to notice this. They would switch back to other older navigation methods.

Subtle/Long term Adjust the responses from weather satellites, that hurricane headed for Florida gets no warning.

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Aside from orbital platforms armed with nuclear weapons for fractional orbital bombardment, which is an outlawed weapons system by international treaty, satellites lack the capacity to be directly destructive.

So maybe hacking communications satellites would enable your nihilistic coders to infiltrate control systems of conventional and nuclear power plants and power distribution systems, causing internal damage that compromises their operation. The impact of losing the entire power grid would be catastrophic to large societies dependent on distributed agriculture for generating enough food for every body.

Similarly, damaging dams and irrigation control nodes via the hacked comms satellites could flood broad areas, further damaging agriculture and maybe industrial sites too.

Finally, maybe if the hackers had orbital control of all the satellites, they could execute an insanely complex maneuver and cause all the satellites to group together and crash directly into a major city. The satellites on the outside would burn up on reentry, but maybe enough metal on the inside of the clutch of satellites would reach the surface with enough kinetic energy to do damage.

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  • $\begingroup$ You can’t target a re-entering satellite precisely enough to hit a city, or even a normal-sized country. That’s why such satellites are ditched in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from any human habitation — you can hit an ocean, if it’s many thousands of miles wide. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Feb 14 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ In what way would hacking communications satellites affect power plants? (Or, for that matter, how could it possibly affect even more ordinary businesses?) Nowadays, the vast majority of Internet services are carried over cables, not satellites. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 14 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ I should point out most power plants or dams don't come with built in explosives and a big red self-destruct button. There is too much built in redundancy and fail-saves to ever allow one outside signal to destroy them entirely. Engaging and permanently locking said fail-saves to render them inoperable would be more feasible. Things like these though would require a lot of in-depth expert knowledge about the plants etc. beyond just being able to hack into their IT systems. $\endgroup$ – Plutian Feb 14 at 9:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Plutian: Those are "fail-safes." $\endgroup$ – JRE Feb 14 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ Fractional orbital bombardment is when you launch a nuke into orbit, and de-orbit it over the target before it makes a complete revolution around the planet. This allows you to fire the missile away from the target, while supposedly dodging the prohibition of nuclear weapons in space. Nuke-armed satellites are a different category. $\endgroup$ – AI0867 Feb 14 at 12:59
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Kill GPS

And the rival systems, Galileo, Beidou, Glonass. A breakdown of GPS would lead to a rapid breakdown of logistics and transportation infrastructure. Famine, looting, and civil war follow.

Sure, one could organize alternate supply chains. But not on short notice.

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    $\begingroup$ I know we've had GPS for a while, but road maps still exist. Ocean navigation is also entirely possible without GPS. People are remarkably resilient. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Feb 14 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ Not to mention, positioning based on cell-tower signals mean your favorite map app would still work to some degree. I believe many cities have the WiFi signals mapped such that you could still navigate to some extent even without cell-towers. $\endgroup$ – Spoki0 - Reinstate Monica Feb 14 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ I'd say that a critical piece of the US's nuclear warfare infrastructure is perhaps not going to come very high up the list of satellites that are easiest to hack. To repeat the act against other nuclear armed powers seems... less than plausible. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Feb 14 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ Disabling GPS would cause chaos but not necessarily famine. Our transportation infrastructure is quite fragile. I remember a tiny snow storm causing a SEVEN HOUR commute on my 8.5 mile route home. Knocking out GPS would probably cause severe rush hour gridlock and would therefore also reduce emergency response capacity and have other knockon effects. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Brēza Feb 14 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ Rather than killing the GPS, I think it would be more impactful to mess it up so it sends inaccurate data. This way, people will be more likely to continue to use it, rather than switching over to unhackable paper maps. $\endgroup$ – alexgbelov Feb 14 at 19:15
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Disrupting communications is already extremely damaging to modern day society.

Sattelites control a much larger part of technology than you would think nowadays. Even just shutting them off could disrupt parts of the Internet, GPS, telephone, and media communications. All of these systems are more or less crucial for modern society. Disrupting some communications to a bank, denying people access to their money would seed anarchy already. Not being able to find out what happened from the TV would fuel it tremendously. Disrupting the quality of life of modern people often brings out the worst in them, so just depriving them of a few choice options would be fairly effective. The following chaos and destruction is all out of your hands.

To add to this, sending false signals to disrupt supply chains would be fairly effective as well. KFC running out of chicken in the UK springs to mind. This was quickly labelled as a "crisis" and people were outraged. Imagine doing this on a much larger scale by sending false messages and rerouting all trucks/supplies to most major corporations. Chaos and rioting would ensue.

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    $\begingroup$ Disrupt large parts of the Internet and voice communications? Maybe in the 1990s... Have you ever even used Internet or voice services carried over satellites? Those 500 millisecond delays are unmistakable... (Or, of course, in the future, when Mr. Musk's Starlink will become a reality.) Television, yes. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 14 at 7:59
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    $\begingroup$ I am aware of this, and this is the main reason I said disrupt not cripple. Also I said media, not voice communications. Cell towers will be up, but you can't feasibly call everyone personally to say what's up. Intercontinental communications would be heavily disrupted. $\endgroup$ – Plutian Feb 14 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ Intercontinental voice and data communications are not carried over satellites except maybe as a backup. It's cables all the way. I have not had a phone call over satellite links in the last 20 years. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Feb 14 at 8:10
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, fair enough, I can't say I'm an expert on modern satellite communications. I wasn't aware the majority is done over cable. I might remove that part of the answer. I suppose the false signal method would be more effective anyway. $\endgroup$ – Plutian Feb 14 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP its OK... our lord and saviour, Elon Musk, has come to rescue us from the tyranny of fibre optics and bring us into a glorious new future of LEO satellite internet where Kessler syndrome will once again be able to disrupt long distance communication! $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Feb 14 at 13:00
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If you spoofed the data from weather sats, plus solar and earth observation sats, you could wreak havoc with the agriculture sector and possibly other areas. Fake hurricane warnings, or suppressing the warning of a real hurricane. Imagine a cat 5 hurricane hit the east coast with no warning.

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    $\begingroup$ If someone had the ability to hack dozens of sats simultaneously they could do far more damaging things than fiddling with the weather. Never mind all the Earth based infrastructure (planes, boats, land based radar) that would still be operational. $\endgroup$ – eps Feb 14 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ No. This wouldn't work for more than a few days at most, because 1) people would notice that the weather forecasts were nonsense; and 2) the meterologists who do the forecasts would notice that satellite data didn't match observations from ground stations. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 14 at 18:59
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Bring the satellites down. Easiest, fastest, most "efficent" way.
You might not only bring down a 4 tonnes of mass from 2000 kilometres height. You can also initiate controlled cascade effect practically bombarding earth from orbit.

Nuking from orbit is sooooo 1986. If you take down the satellite with one nuke to Iowa or Arizona you not only put nuke to that places but all the additional mass you bring make for a nice mass hitting the earth vaporizing eart, making radioactive clouds.

Also a not nice reference but imagine what would happened if 4 tonne satellite falled on Manhattan instead of a plane hitting WTC.

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    $\begingroup$ Your reference seems a bit weird. Imagine a 4 metric ton satellite falling on Manhattan, instead of the 100+ metric ton plane that hit the WTC. $\endgroup$ – Spoki0 - Reinstate Monica Feb 14 at 11:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Spoki0-ReinstateMonica The speed and angle is what play the diffrence. Also the sattelite have accelleration of gravity while Boeing maks speed was capped around 900 km/h. $\endgroup$ – SZCZERZO KŁY Feb 14 at 11:35
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    $\begingroup$ Satellites are manifestly not aerodynamic, nor equipped with heat shields. They'll tumble and break up on the way down, and most of the bits will be burnt to a crisp by re-entry heat. A few bits will survive, but they'll be small and their terminal velocity will be a long way shy of orbital speeds because air resistance will slow them right down. The unpredictable trajectories of the remaining bits of debris will mean that it'll get spread out over a wide area... a CEP that could easily miss a city. Sure, some damage and loss of life may occur, but it'll be pretty insignificant. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Feb 14 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is, unfortunately, complete nonsense. the Chinese tiangong-1 was much bigger than most sats and almost entirely burned up during reentry, as expected. That's assuming you can even bring the sat down in the first place, many lack the fuel required to do so in any reasonable time. I'm not sure what nukes have to do with anything. $\endgroup$ – eps Feb 14 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ another example: The Space Shuttle is bigger than most (all?) satellites, and designed for reentry. Columbia didn't make it to the ground in one piece or really cause much significant damage on the ground. $\endgroup$ – Mr.Mindor Feb 14 at 20:52

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