Has Russia Hacked Starlink?

14th Sep 2023
Has Russia Hacked Starlink?

On the early morning (UTC) of Wednesday, 13th September, the Starlink space-borne Internet service provider experienced a global outage. This service disruption lasted for less than an hour. Starlink issued a press release noting the outage, but no explanation.

This is not the first time that Starlink has gone down. However, when service was disrupted on 8th April 2023, Elon Musk took to the service then called Twitter to apologize for the failure. He also explained that security licences had expired. It was embarrassing, but it also set a precedent for how Starlink handled such issues.

Crimean Attack

The unusual outage and response on 13th September came just after the Ukrainian military attacked the heart of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol, in Crimea. While Crimea as a whole has been under Russian occupation since 2014, the base at Sevastopol had already been in Russian hands under a rental agreement with the Ukrainian government. Since the launch of the wide-scale invasion on 24th February 2022, those facilities have played a vital role in Russia’s war effort against Ukraine. As such, the naval base provides a target rich environment for Ukraine’s military — if it can reach the bases accurately. Hitting a block of flats does nothing to further Ukraine’s war aims, but Russia has based missile-launching craft there, and those would be prime targets. In this case, Ukraine hit at least two dry docks, destroying both a Ropucha-class landing vessel named the Minsk, and a Kilo-class sub — named the Rostov-on-Don.

The outage following the attack is noteworthy because of a scandal brewing over Elon Musk’s personal decision to not have Starlink available over Crimea in 2022, when the Ukrainian authorities requested it for such a strike. Musk has claimed that he believed that such an attack would escalate to WWIII or a nuclear war.

Has Russia hacked Starlink, finally?

Analysts following the Russian invasion were quick to point out the linkage, as were Ukrainians trying to conduct a defense of their homeland. As one noted, “Musk didn’t help himself when a couple of weeks ago he said the only way he’d get away with stopping another attack would be to create a world wide blackout and blame the Russians.”
However, the Russians have been actively attempting to hack into Starlink ever since the service was first made available to the Ukrainians. Starlink’s software defense of its systems was called “eye watering” by military observers on the scene. This is in contrast to operators such as Viasat, who had their service provision to Ukraine’s government cut off at the very beginning of the attack on Kyiv. Have they finally succeeded with Starlink as well?

Conclusions, for now

There is the possibility that the two events are unrelated. It could be that Elon Musk was worried that the Ukrainians would continue summoning extinction-level events by hitting Russian military targets in Crimea and shut Starlink off for a bit. Perhaps the Russians found a hole that was plugged rather quickly. Since more of the advanced anti-missile defenses in Crimea have been destroyed since then, we might not have long to wait for another chance to see if there is a correlation, which could lead us back to the question, “Has Russia hacked Starlink?”

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