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Search Launched for TV Hacker

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Federal authorities have launched an investigation throughout the eastern two-thirds of the country in what they say is the first known instance of deliberate interference with a satellite-TV broadcast.

Persons familiar with the case said Monday that a 4-minute pirate broadcast that broke into the eastern feed of Home Box Office Inc. early Sunday morning appeared to have come from a professional satellite transmission station . They downplayed speculation that the broadcast came from an amateur satellite hobbyist engaging in a prank .

Officials also have expressed concern that the pirate TV transmission could portend serious interference problems for satellite broadcasts from the commercial TV networks, as well as business and financial information, government messages and other satellite communications.

William Russell, a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, said that the agency is investigating the case and has asked the Justice Department to participate in the search for the pirate, who identifies him or herself as “Captain Midnight.”

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Russell said that the FCC had technical means of searching out the satellite pirate, as well as more traditional investigative techniques. He acknowledged, however, that the FCC would be unable to track down the pirate signal unless it is rebroadcast in the future.

“I can’t go into detail about what we may or may not be doing technically,” Russell said. “I don’t think it would be beneficial to have the person involved know what we’re capable of doing.”

Russell also said that the search for the pirate was being concentrated in the eastern two-thirds of the country on the “assumption” that it was “not likely someone from the West Coast” who broke into HBO’s eastern signal broadcast via the Galaxy I satellite.

The message, printed in white letters on a color-bar test pattern background, appeared at about 12:30 a.m. EST Sunday during a broadcast of the film “The Falcon and the Snowman.” It read: “Good Evening, HBO, from Captain Midnight. $12.95 a month? No way! (Showtime Movie Channel Beware.)”

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The message, an apparent protest of monthly fees now being charged to satellite dish owners by HBO and some other satellite networks, was not seen in the Pacific time zone.

A broadcast engineer who saw a rebroadcast of the pirate transmission said that it looked to him as if it had been composed and broadcast on professional equipment, worth as much as $250,000.

“It was my impression that this came from somebody at a professional satellite facility,” said Bob Abrams, vice president for operations at Los Angeles-based Wold Communications Inc., one of the nation’s largest satellite transmission companies.

Abrams said that there are only about 100 facilities in the country capable of making the transmission.

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The intrusion was immediately noticed at HBO’s communications center on Long Island, N.Y., but it was not clear whether the hacker ended his own message or was forced off by HBO.

The person responsible faces a $10,000 fine and up to one year in federal prison for making the unlicensed broadcast, the FCC’s Russell said.

David Pritchard, a spokesman for HBO in New York, said that the network is cooperating with authorities in the search for the pirate.

“Whoever did this is pretty sophisticated,” Pritchard said. “If the person considers it a prank, they really underestimate what they’ve done.

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“This represents a clear danger to every satellite user, including the federal government,” he said.


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