Author: Tara Lemieux, CMMC Consultant, PA/PI/CCP/CCA/ISO Lead Auditor 

At first glance, the HackRF One PortaPack H2 presents itself as a somewhat benign radio communication tool, often promoted as a dream come true for tech enthusiasts. Its compact form, mobility, and ease of use create an inviting allure. However, beneath its unassuming exterior lies a threat capable of shaking society to its core. Highlighting the vulnerabilities of the U.S. supply chain and defense contractors.

In reality, this Software Defined Radio (SDR) is capable of transmitting and receiving signals across a diverse spectrum of frequencies and sources. 

But the true menace emerges with the introduction of the Mayhem firmware. This transformation morphs the device into a conductor of chaos, orchestrating attacks ranging from debilitating denial-of-service onslaughts to wireless signal manipulation, packet manipulation, and brute-force assaults. In the wrong hands, this device becomes a very dangerous tool. 

The list of exploits is endless, from RF replay attacks which are used to intercept and emulate RF signals (such as those used by key fobs to lock and unlock your car doors), to emulating a fleet of spoofed ‘ghost plane’ signals – wreaking havoc on air travel.  

In the recent cyberattack on Polish railway communication systems, saboteurs used this type of technology to transmit signals that brought trains to a grinding halt. Imagine the implications for use against U.S. power grids, emergency services, and other critical infrastructure.  All using a device that retails fully loaded for less than the cost of an evening out.  



Exploiting U.S. Critical Infrastructure: Real World Scenarios 

But there are certainly other exploits that we must consider, including:  

  • Interference with Air Travel: The Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADSB) system is crucial for air traffic control. Adversaries armed with this device could potentially manipulate ADSB transmitters, sending false signals to aircraft. This could lead to mid-air collisions, chaos, and sadly loss of lives.
  • Disruption of Communication Networks: The device could also be used to target communication networks, cutting off vital communication channels used by emergency services, law enforcement, and hospitals during times of crisis.  
  • Compromising Power Grids: More troubling, these types of devices could potentially interfere with the power grid’s control systems, causing blackouts that plunge entire cities into darkness. 
  • Disrupting Train Operations: Modern U.S. train systems rely on an intricate communication network to ensure safe and efficient operations. These systems utilize a combination of wireless communication protocols, signaling systems, and sensors to manage train movements, track occupancy, and safety measures. Train-to-wayside communication, where trains interact with infrastructure along the track, is fundamental to ensuring precise schedules, avoiding collisions, and managing emergencies.  

However, adversaries armed with this tech could exploit vulnerabilities in train-to-wayside communication. By transmitting false occupancy signals to control systems, they could deceive the infrastructure into believing a track is unoccupied, potentially leading to deadly collisions. 

Or, it may be used to send fabricated signals to trains, causing them to slow down or even stop unnecessarily, disrupting schedules, causing delays, and negatively impacting passenger experiences. Such was the case in the recent Polish railway attacks.  

By sending manipulated commands, attackers could even manipulate track switches and signals. Such an attack could lead to forced track switching, causing derailments or train accidents. 



The Implications and Imperatives

Both the device and its aptly named Mayhem counterpart carry a dire message—a stark reminder that technology, when wielded maliciously, knows no bounds. It forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth that with innovation comes risk. Cybersecurity professionals and practitioners find themselves in a relentless race against time, as they strive to comprehend, counteract, and combat this new breed of cyber threat. 

As the digital landscape evolves, so must our vigilance. Let these discoveries serve as a wake-up call—a clarion urging us to be prepared, to stand united against the looming storm of cyber chaos. Through understanding, fortification, and proactive measures, we shall not only mitigate the mayhem but also pave the path to a secure digital future—a future where the powers of innovation are harnessed for good, rather than falling prey to their allure.  



The Vulnerabilities of the U.S. Supply Chain and Defense Contractors 

In an era marked by rapid technological advancements, a growing concern is emerging that poses a significant threat to our national security—the proliferation of sophisticated hacking devices, just like this, and their potential to wreak havoc within the United States. These devices, often covertly planted or remotely operated, have the potential to disrupt the very backbone of our nation’s defense capabilities: the U.S. supply chain. At the heart of this issue lies the alarming reality that most members of our U.S. Defense Industrial Base remain largely unaware of these invisible threats and the profound implications they carry. 

For example, these devices in the wrong hands may be used to actively surveil defense contractors, who are essential cogs in the machinery of our national defense. These covert devices can be strategically deployed to infiltrate the ranks of these contractors, aiming to gain access to sensitive information and critical U.S. systems. By covertly surveilling contractors within the U.S. Defense Industrial Base, adversaries can map out vulnerabilities, compromise critical infrastructure, and exploit the supply chain’s weakest links. This not only jeopardizes the integrity of our defense systems but also opens the door for foreign actors to manipulate, disrupt, or exploit sensitive defense information, potentially leading to catastrophic consequences.  

Unfortunately, many defense contractors remain ill-equipped to detect, assess, and defend against these invisible threats, making it paramount to raise awareness and implement robust countermeasures to safeguard our national security interests. The path forward demands a unified effort to equip our Defense Industrial Base with the knowledge and tools needed to thwart these advanced hacking devices, ensuring the resilience of our nation’s supply chain and safeguarding our critical systems from covert infiltration. 


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