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Cybersecurity Threats in Space

[LEO - The European Space Agency]


- Overview

Humanity's fascination with aliens doesn't seem to be waning. This growth is driven by new technologies, business models and government investment in the industry, thereby increasing the number of stakeholders and the application areas they serve cost-effectively.

The use of satellite networks has also become more prominent due to Starlink's involvement in the Ukraine conflict, and it shows no signs of slowing down. As the cost of entry in the space industry decreases and business opportunities abound, expect cybercriminals to innovate as this huge growth area develops. 

Among other developments, the associated increase in data volume and complexity has led to increasing concerns about the security and integrity of data transmission and storage between satellites and between ground stations and satellites. 

The risk to satellites is highlighted because they are specialized computers and therefore vulnerable to many of the same cybersecurity threats on Earth. Subsequent leaks of satellites and other space assets may increase and become more public.


- Why are Space Systems Vulnerable?

Much of the world’s critical infrastructure is heavily dependent on space, specifically space-based assets, for its daily functioning. Essential systems -- such as communications, air transport, maritime trade, financial services, weather monitoring and defense -- all rely heavily on space infrastructure, including satellites, ground stations and data links at the national, regional and international level. 

This dependence poses a serious, and yet frequently underrecognized, security dilemma -- especially cyber threats -- for critical infrastructure providers and policymakers alike. 

Like any other increasingly digitized critical infrastructure, satellites and other space-based assets are vulnerable to cyberattacks. Many space systems are old, created before cybersecurity became a top policy priority. 

They have vulnerabilities like hardcoded credentials -- used by ships, planes and the military — making access by sophisticated actors fairly easy.

These cyber vulnerabilities pose serious risks not just for space-based assets themselves but also for ground-based critical infrastructure. If not contained, these threats could interfere with global economic development and, by extension, international security. What's more, these concerns are no longer merely hypothetical. 

Within the past decade, more countries and private actors have acquired and employed counter-space capabilities in novel applications, which now pose a greater existential threat to critical space assets. 


- What are the Vulnerabilities?

Satellites are vulnerable to cyberattacks because they are platforms with embedded systems and interfaces, including radio communications, telemetry tracking control systems, and ground segment connections. These are all essentially enterprise networks, but that also makes them avenues of opportunity for cybercriminals.

Vulnerabilities to space systems and infrastructure vary across a range of potential attack surfaces. As the Aerospace Corporation explains in a recent paper, there are four main segments of space infrastructure that need to be hardened against cyber attack: Spacecraft could be vulnerable to command intrusions (giving bad instructions to destroy or manipulate basic controls), payload control and denial of service (sending too much traffic to overload systems). 

Malware could be used to infect systems on the ground (like satellite control centers) and for users, and links between the two and spacecraft could be spoofed (disguising communication from an untrusted source as a trusted one) or suffer from replay (interrupting or delaying communication by malicious actors). 


[Vienna, Austria]

- Cybersecurity for Satellites 

Satellites in orbit are vulnerable to cybersecurity threats due to their isolation and reliance on wireless communications. These threats include: Signal jamming, Spoofing, Data interception, Malware installation, Ransomware attacks, and System breaches. 

Other vulnerabilities include: Software-defined radio compromise, Insider threats, Hacking ground systems to interact with satellites, Malicious features embedded in design and hardware development, and Communications hacking on TT&C systems. 

Cyberattacks can damage satellites by uploading malware to satellite terminals, which can give hackers control of the devices, shut them down, or cut off communication with the ground. In 2022, the Viasat KA-SAT attack, attributed to Russian state actors, overpowered the satellite's communication protocols, leading to widespread internet outages and disruptions in remote sensing services. 

Cyber threats to space segments usually come from vulnerabilities in ground stations and network components. These vulnerabilities allow attackers to gain unauthorized access while remaining undetected. 

Here are some steps that can be taken to defend against cyber threats in space:

  • Identify vulnerabilities via scans and penetration tests
  • Protect by mitigating risks discovered in simulations
  • Detect by monitoring continuously to discover anomalies
  • Respond by operating using backup strategies developed and tested via the virtual model
  • Recover by employing plans tested through simulation

- Cybersecurity Threats in Space 

A cybersecurity threat is a harmful activity committed with the intent of destroying, stealing, or disrupting data, critical systems and digital life in general. Computer viruses, malware attacks, data breaches, and Denial of Service (DoS) assaults are examples of these risks.

Cybersecurity threats in space include: 

  • Satellite hijacking: This involves reusing a satellite for other purposes, including changing its signals. Broadcast signal intrusion is a form of communication hijacking that involves hijacking broadcast signals from satellites, radio, or television.
  • Hacking: Cybercriminals can access vital systems, manipulate controls, and steal data.
  • Jamming: This involves overpowering GPS signals locally so that a GPS receiver can no longer operate. Jamming is sometimes called meaconing or a playback attack. 
  • Spoofing: This involves making a GPS receiver calculate a false position. Spoofing mimics authentic GNSS satellites to hijack GNSS receiver tracking loops.
  • Hardware backdoors: Malicious actors can discover and exploit hidden vulnerabilities in satellite hardware components.
  • Malware or ransomware: Cyberthreats to crewed spacecraft may focus on proximity approaches, such as installing malware or ransomware into a craft's internal computer.
  • Electronic attack: This includes electronic attack (EA) against space-based services at the transmission site, the satellite, and the user's equipment.
  • Physical attacks: These include attacks against actual satellites and spacecraft. 


Other space threats include: 

  • Tracking and monitoring satellites and their transmissions
  • Exploiting misconfigurations and software vulnerabilities in systems
  • Gaining unauthorized access to critical services
  • Injection of malware
  • Use of phishing to obtain sensitive credentials
  • Satellite control
  • Satellite communications terminal hacking
  • GPS spoofing



[More to come ...]



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