The Sinosat Incident - TvTechnology

The Sinosat Incident

Dissident group hijacks China's World Cup audience
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Dissident group hijacks China's World Cup audience

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, MAINE

World Cup viewers in China caught some unauthorized footage over their state-run satellite system when a person or people, possibly sympathizing with the outlawed Falun Gong religious movement, commandeered parts of the system briefly and broadcast pro-Falun Gong images on Chinese television.

During the final week of June, two Ku-Band transponders on the Sinosat-1 satellite were hijacked on several occasions. On July 8, the Xinhua News Agency in Beijing reported that the illicit transmissions affected nine Central Television Station (CCTV) channels and 10 provincial TV channels. Broadcasts of World Cup matches and celebrations in Hong Kong were among the interrupted broadcasts.

"This is a personnel security problem, not a technology security problem. And no legislation will fix this problem," said Richard DalBello, president of the Virginia-based Satellite Industry Association (SIA). "Usually this is an inside job involving the use of active broadcast equipment."

The arrows point to the Falun Gong movement, but it could have been the work of a supporter of Falun Gong or a critic of Chinese policies. There is no evidence that the Falun Gong itself carried out these acts. A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., said the Chinese government is investigating.

One person overseas familiar with the situation even described these hijackings as damaging to the Falun Gong over time.

"All of this is likely to be quite counterproductive. It weakens their cause because it allows the Chinese government to claim that the organization is political rather than religious in nature," he said.

But Levi Browde, a spokesman for the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York, pointed out that the Falun Gong have been engaged in a systematic campaign to tap into Chinese cable systems for several months in order to beam TV footage, including investigative journalism exposing alleged Chinese human rights abuses, directly into Chinese homes.

The points of origin for the unauthorized transmissions are still unclear. A long list of facilities in mainland China, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and even Hong Kong can easily access Sinosat-1. One news account said Hong Kong police had visited several facilities already. In early July, Hong Kong newspapers reported that the CCTV had altered its programming schedule to avoid possible hijacking during several key events.

Satellite TV viewers in these provinces viewed the characters for "Falun Dafa is good" and various images of Falun Gong practices. The unauthorized broadcasts lasted from several seconds up to several minutes in length; how many actually took place is not known.

Fan Xingmin, manager at the General Office of SINO Satellite Communications Co. (Sinosat) in China, referred us to his company's newsletter. Here are a few excerpts:

"Since 7 pm June 23 2002, the Ku-2A and Ku-3A transponders of Sinosat-1 have incurred repetitiously vicious interference from external radio signals. As a result, the 'village to village' TV programs time after time were disrupted and shown as nothing on TV sets.

"The vicious interference SINOSAT has suffered time after time, has impacted the normal operation of Sinosat-1's relevant transponders, and imperiled business activities of SINOSAT.

"It is uncommon to see such kind of behavior that Falun Gong cult used the technical measures to disrupt the satellite communications and normal broadcast and TV businesses. This disrupted act that openly breached relevant international pacts and civilian communications is the provocation to all commercial telecommunication and broadcast satellite operators worldwide, and should be cast aside and condemned by international community, and furthermore will be severely punished by relevant laws."

SOPHISTICATION

Richard Dutchik, a Florida-based satellite systems engineer with an extensive track record worldwide, asserts that as each additional detail emerges, the level of sophistication involved appears to be increasing.

Dutchik points to a highly skilled technician with access to an uplink antenna seven meters or more in diameter along with a power amplifier capable of an output of 700-800 W. The setup would also include a character generator and a laptop computer storing PowerPoint images and capable of driving a modulator.

"The individual in question just elects to come up with a stronger carrier. The net effect is that there is an immediate overpowering of the satellite receivers in the viewers' homes which are probably just clicking over automatically to default or in the clear mode," said Dutchik.

"If this involves a digital transmission as opposed to an analog feed simply overriding the Sinosat digital feed, than the situation changes dramatically. This implies more than a minor degree of inside knowledge about the actual codes in use and about the details surrounding the conditional access system employed by Sinosat," he added.

SHADES OF CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT

Readers have no doubt heard about Captain Midnight. HBO found itself in a very sticky and unwelcome situation at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 27, 1986, when John R. MacDougall flicked the switch at the Central Florida Teleport and blasted this now famous message over the HBO East Coast feed for almost five minutes:

GOOD EVENING HBO FROM CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT

$12.95/MONTH?

NO WAY!

(SHOWTIME/MOVIE CHANNEL BEWARE)

Captain Midnight is mentioned here not because HBO needs to be reminded of that unpleasant episode but because MacDougall has always contended that regardless of what theoretical countermeasures the HBO satellite team on Long Island had available to them that night, at no time did MacDougall sense that he was about to lose control of TR 23 on Galaxy 1 once he locked onto it. Incidentally, HBO was apparently transmitting at 125 W at the time.

Besides, Sinosat-1 and Galaxy 1, Eutelsat II-F2 was apparently the victim of another satellite hijacking in August 1996. A broadcast by MED-TV, a Kurdish satellite TV channel, was subjected to interference in the form of loud music. BT engineers in London who handled the transponder in question simply cut the MED-TV feed.

Still, Dutchik contends that the Sinosat operators made a mistake by backing down on their output power level rather than saturating the transponder and blocking the unauthorized signal in the process.

"The fact is that the guy with the most uplink power is the one who gets through, although you reach a point where you go beyond saturation. In this instance, you risk damaging the spacecraft and actually diminishing the power of the signal bouncing back to earth," Dutchik said.

In late July, TV Technology conducted several interviews with people, in addition to Dutchnik, involved in satellite ground-station engineering and satellite and teleport operations in Asia. Nobody wanted to be identified because they are extremely sensitive about the Chinese government's ongoing investigation of this incident.