Cybersecurity’s next frontier: Space

Privacy news
2 mins
Starry sky with padlocks and bugs.

With the rise of activity revolving around high-tech equipment and vessels in space, cybersecurity is no longer merely a terrestrial problem. And space organizations are increasingly addressing this need.

Cybersecurity challenges for space

When it comes to space activities, the threats are similar to earthbound systems—except they encompass the satellite (or other space equipment), control stations on the ground, and transmissions in between. 

A blog post by the Wilson Center lists vulnerabilities as including command intrusions (bad instructions causing issues with controls), overloading systems with too much traffic (DoS attacks), malware infecting ground systems, and spoofed links (untrusted communication disguised as trusted).

Cybersecurity in space is also becoming more imperative, given how the space industry is growing.

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Growth in satellites and space tourism

An enormous amount of our infrastructure relies on satellites. That includes communications, weather monitoring, air transport, and even some financial services. If the wrong satellite went down, the consequences could be dire. When you factor in all the military applications of satellites, the importance of their security is even clearer.

Satellites are at risk of damage from incidents like inter-space collisions, which could occur as the result of a hack. This is a growing concern as the number of satellites in space has increased, thanks in part to the emergence of companies like SpaceX.

Some satellites in service were manufactured before cybersecurity concerns were top of mind, making them vulnerable. Some even have hardcoded credentials, meaning they have passwords embedded into the system that can’t be changed.

On the other hand, recently launched satellites are often on the cutting edge from an R&D perspective. So while they might be harder to hack, they can be considered a high-value target for data theft to the most skilled cyber criminals.

Meanwhile, the concept of space tourism is picking up, making the danger of something like a ransomware attack on a spacecraft carrying passengers is becoming more real.

Establishing cybersecurity standards for space

The United States Space Force, for one, says it will publish a timeline for implementing new cybersecurity standards that must be met for satellite communication providers to bid on Air Force and other military contracts by the end of the month. 

Earlier this year, the Space Force also demonstrated a heightened interest in cybersecurity by bringing on board 2,400 cybersecurity personnel. Dubbed “Cyber Guardians,” this group is charged with protecting satellites and other space-based assets from hackers.

But most experts point to the importance of international cooperation. The Council on Foreign Relations has published a report recommending the U.S. to raise space cybersecurity within NATO, and for NASA and the European Space Agency to sign a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on space cybersecurity. 

An example of an international space-related treaty is The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which prohibits kinetic weapons from being sent into orbit. It has its own issues, such as its failure to account for facilitators of cyber warfare (which makes sense given the era in which it was signed), but it does present a precedent. 

Worried about cyber threats in space? Let us know in the comments!

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