As of 2020 there were a near 6,000 satellites in space we rely on for everything from telephone service to weather reports to agricultural research. Companies like SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb, and others have already launched hundreds of satellites in order to sell internet access around the world. They are planning to send thousands more into orbit.
But cyber security experts and those with investments in satellites, commercial and military, are concerned this emerging industry is a giant target for hackers. Amid the surge in commercial rocket launches and a recent spike in ransomware attacks, cyberattacks aimed at space systems could disrupt internet access, interfere with the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) system, and even turn satellites into weapons.
And there are precedents
- During 2007 and 2008 two American satellites used by the US Geological Survey and NASA to monitor climate and terrain were hacked into four times.
- In 2014, US officials blamed China for a cyberattack that forced the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to cut off public access to imagery data from a satellite network used for weather forecasting.
- Russia has reportedly used GPS spoofing to confuse ships about their actual locations by overwhelming a satellite with false signals.
- There have been cyber break-ins to computers at Kennedy Space Center in Florida in April 2005, where space shuttles are launched, Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland where many satellites and spacecraft are controlled, and at Johnson Space Center in Texas, home to Mission Control for the International Space Station and space shuttle missions.
- On another occasion, an American-German deep-space-peering satellite, ROSAT, was hacked and turned toward the sun to make it useless, when hackers broker into a computer.
We tend to think of satellites sending data to navigation apps, but they also transmit crucial timing data that’s used to run the electric grid and even banking transactions. Our increased reliance on this tech makes the threat of hacking a concern.
A hacker could try to access a satellite by targeting a company’s ground systems, and once inside, the attacker could manipulate the communications or controls, download unwanted software, or even tell the satellite to change its course.
Commercial companies are cognizant of the threat and have been investing in hiring cybersecurity professionals, information system security officers to find vulnerabilities in systems, and information security assurance analysts to investigate the physical and cybersecurity of the supply chain to ensure components and software aren’t tinkered with before they reach the company.
Will it happen?
- Hacking a modern satellite is no easy matter.
- The orbital periods and positions of the satellite need to be established. Only geostationary satellites can be communicated with at all times; others must be passing overhead before they can be communicated with.
- The frequencies that the satellite uses for command and control, both for uplink and downlink need to be identified.
- You need hardware that can communicate via these frequencies which sometimes means you need a large antenna.
- There is always a well-defined command-and-control protocol to communicate with a satellite. Satellites do not respond to garbage commands and will probably raise an alarm if someone is attempting to communicate with it.
- Signals are most likely encrypted, and hackers need to break the code. Thirdly, there are additional authentication mechanisms to prevent hacking.
Clearly it requires great effort, skills, knowledge and resources to hack modern satellites. The ability to do this really only lies with nation states, certainly not your average hacker. It’s more likely that satellite ground stations will be hacked.
- When ground stations were hacked in the US solen electronic data and documents were traced to computers in Taiwan, which China often uses as a hub to forward material into mainland Chinese computers.
- The hacker that compromised the ROSAT satellite apparently sent it to Moscow, where it likely ended up in the hands of a Russian intelligence agency.
Once inside a ground system an attacker could manipulate the communications or controls, download unwanted software, or even tell the satellite to change its course. It’s the same kind of thing where people are getting into your computer system and behaving badly.
Will it happen? Most certainly.