To defend against cyber attacks in space, researchers ask ‘what if?’

If space systems such as GPS were hacked and knocked offline, much of the world would instantly be returned to the communication and navigation technologies of the 1950s. But space cyber security is largely invisible to the public at a time of heightened geopolitical tension.

Cyber-attacks on satellites have occurred since the 1980s, but the global alarm went off only a few years ago. Hours before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, government operatives hacked Viasat’s satellite-internet services to cut off communications and cause confusion in Ukraine.

I study ethics and emerging technologies and am a consultant to the US National Space Council. My colleagues and I at California Polytechnic State University’s Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group released a report funded by the US National Science Foundation on June 17, 2024, to explain the problem of cyberattacks in space and help to anticipate novel and surprising situations.

Space and you

Most people are unaware of the critical role space systems play in their daily lives, let alone military conflicts. For example, GPS uses signals from satellites. Precise GPS-enabled timing is critical in financial services where every detail – such as payment or withdrawal time – needs to be faithfully captured and coordinated. Even making a mobile phone call depends on precise timing in the network.

Besides the navigation of planes, boats, cars and people, GPS is also important for coordinating fleets of trucks that carry goods to local stores every day.

Earth observation satellites are “eyes in the sky” with a unique view to help predict the weather, monitor environmental changes, track and respond to natural disasters, increase agricultural crop yields, manage land and water use, monitor troop movements and more. . The loss of these and other space services could be fatal for people vulnerable to natural disasters and crop failure. They could also seriously endanger global economics and security.

Tá go leor satailítí ríthábhachtach chun gníomhaíocht nádúrtha agus daonna a rianú anseo ar an Domhan.  <a href=NASA” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTY0MA–/ 5041a6″/>
Many satellites are critical to tracking natural and human activity here on Earth. NASA

Factors in play

In our report, we identify many factors that contribute to the growing threat of space cyber attacks. For example, it is important to recognize that the world is at the beginning of a new space race.

By all accounts, the space is becoming more crowded and more contested. Both nation-states and private companies, which are underregulated and now own most of the satellites in orbit, are preparing to compete for resources and research sites.

Because space is so remote and difficult to access, if someone wanted to attack a space system, they would probably have to do it through a cyber attack. Space systems are very attractive targets because their hardware cannot be easily upgraded once launched, and this insecurity worsens over time. As complex systems, they can have long supply chains, and more links in the chain increase the chance of vulnerabilities. Major space projects are also challenged to keep up with best practices over the decade or more required to build them.

And the stakes are unusually high in space. Orbital debris whizzes around at speeds of 6 to 9 miles per second and can easily destroy the spacecraft on impact. It may also end space programs around the world given the hypothetical Kessler syndrome in which the Earth is eventually imprisoned in a cocoon of debris. These consequences greatly favor space cyber attacks compared to physical attacks as the problem of debris is likely to affect the attacker as well.

Furthermore, given critical space infrastructure and services, such as GPS, conflicts in space can spark or add fuel to conflict on earth, even those in cyberspace. For example, Russia warned in 2022 that the exercise of one of its satellites would be considered a declaration of war, a significant departure from previous norms of warfare.

Conjuring cases

Even security professionals who recognize the severity of this cyber security space threat face a major challenge. At least in unclassified forums, only a few underspecified cases are usually considered: something vague about satellite hacking and something vague about signals simmering or spoofing.

But failure to imagine a full range of possibilities can be disastrous for security planning, especially against hackers who are a diverse set of entities with different motivations and goals. Nailing down these variables is crucial because they reveal clues about the strategies and levers that might be more effective for defenders in response. For example, an attack by a state-sponsored hacker may require a different approach than, say, that of a criminal hacker after money or an agent of chaos.

To help with this piece of the security puzzle, our report provides a taxonomy – the ICARUS matrix – that captures these variables and can create more than 4 million unique combinations of variables, which we call scenario clues. ICARUS is an acronym for “imagining cyber-attacks to anticipate space-related risks.”

Here are three of the 42 cases we included in the report.

A 3D printer or additive can be a valuable resource for quickly creating parts on demand for space missions. A hacker could gain access to a printer on a space station and reprogram it to make small imperfections within the parts it prints. Some of these failed built-in components may be part of critical systems.

A hacker could corrupt the data from a planetary probe to show inaccurate readings in the atmosphere, temperature or water. Contaminated data from the Mars rover, for example, could falsely show that an area has significant subsurface water ice. Any subsequent mission sent to explore the site further would be wasted.

In 1938, a radio drama about an alien invasion caused panic when many listeners did not realize it was fictional. Similarly, a hacker could access the audio feeds of the Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI, project and insert something resembling an alien language into the METI transcript. They could then leak it to the media, which could cause panic around the world and move financial markets.

Other cases in our report involve things like insider threats, AI vulnerabilities, false flag attacks, eco-terrorism, ransomware during shipping, as well as more distant cases of asteroid mining, extraterrestrial colonies and pirates.

Stories for better security

People find it difficult to respond to stories, whether shared over prehistoric campfires or on digital platforms today. Thus, the creation of novel and surprising scenarios can help bring to life the invisible threat of space cyberattacks, as well as spotlight nuances in different situations that may require interdisciplinary experts to tackle together.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit, independent news organization that brings you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

Written by: Patrick Lin, California Polytechnic State University.

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Patrick Lin receives funding from the US National Science Foundation. In space matters, he is a key member of the US National Space Council Users. Advisory Group and is also affiliated with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronomy (AIAA), the Institute for Space Law and Ethics for All Moonkind, and the Aurelia Institute.

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