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NewScientist.com June 13, 2002

US surveillance plays on satellite TV

Will Knight

Satellite television receivers can pick up surveillance pictures relayed from US spy planes covering the Balkans, a British satellite enthusiast has discovered.

The video reveals detailed information about US military operations in the Balkans and shows the capabilities of the surveillance craft used. One stream revealed a heavily protected patrol near the Macedonian-Kosovan border. The video stream includes co-ordinates and the type of surveillance plane involved.

"Certainly this does pose the risk that somebody monitoring this could basically see what the US military is interested in," says John Pike of the US military think tank Global Security.

John Locker, an amateur satellite expert in the UK, discovered the video stream. He says the video is relayed in unencrypted format through a commercial US satellite orbiting the Earth above Brazil, called Telstar II.

This means anyone with the ordinary satellite receiving equipment can receive the pictures. Locker says he contacted British, NATO and US military officials but was ignored.

Surveillance support

Manned spy planes such as P-3 Orion and unmanned drones such as the Hunter provide support for US group troops in the Balkans. Surveillance video helps military command provide protection for troops and assist them in operations against targets, such as suspected war criminals or gunrunners.

Most commercial satellite video channels are encrypted so that only those who have the correct hardware can receive the service. Still images taken by military satellites are also routinely sent in an encrypted format.

Pike says that encrypting a live video stream would be expensive and could induce a delay: "I assume they just decided not to bother in this case."

Some experts speculate that surveillance of the Balkans may have been moved to a less secure satellite channel after the US military began increasing surveillance of Afghanistan.

The Balkan video was first detected in November 2001, shortly before the after of the War in Afghanistan began in October 2001. Locker says he decided to go public with his discovery after his repeated warnings were ignored.


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