Drift from satellites and suicide shuttles: why cyber attacks pose a major threat to human ambition in space


Commercial space travel is getting more and more fancy as private companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic innovate in fully onboard space flights.

For now, space exploration is reserved for scientists, engineers, and millionaires, but it may only be a matter of time before advancements in technology begin to democratize access. And the beneficiaries include not only businesses but also courageous tourists.

However, it is easy to lose sight of many risks, mesmerized by the possibilities of the universe. For example, a new report from security firm Kaspersky claims that the threat posed by cyber attacks on space infrastructure is often overlooked.

Although threat levels remain relatively low for now, the report predicts that the number of attacks on space infrastructure will skyrocket with catastrophic consequences.

“In every new area, people are focusing on service availability rather than security. Space exploration is at this stage. There are many systems with basic security or no security, ”Kaspersky said. Maher Yamout, Senior Security Researcher at.

“Space stations and sensors are ‘out of range’, so you might think there is no risk, but the attack has already taken place. “

Hierarchical system

This report classifies spatial infrastructure into three categories: user segment, ground segment, and spatial layer. All of these are vulnerable to attack in their own way.

The user segment consists of devices and networks that administrators use to monitor technologies deployed in the space. On the other hand, the role of the ground segment is to receive communications from satellites and aircraft of the space layer and to give instructions.

We have already seen intrusions affecting each of these layers. For example, in 2019, NASA discovered that an attacker had successfully compromised a network and opened a hardware backdoor ( Raspberry pie) To steal confidential information. Also, in the ground segment, there is an opportunity to intercept traffic. This allows an attacker to spy on satellite communications and inject traffic to communicate with the virus.

Diagram of users, land and space segments that make up the space infrastructure. (Image credit: Kaspersky)

At present, there are no known examples of cybercriminals directly hacking satellites, but vulnerabilities in the user and ground segments are exploited in an attempt to alter the flight path of orbiting satellites.

“By design, every part of the infrastructure has entry points, each of which can create opportunities for attackers,” Yamout explains. “On Earth, all the advancements and new technologies provide a relatively good level of security protection, but in space systems the protection is much more basic.”

“With the evolution of technology and science, we could visit more universes than ever before. Cybersecurity must be taken into account when designing space systems at all layers and throughout the evolution of the space domain. Must be integrated into segments and phases. “

However, no matter how well the space infrastructure is protected, criminals will find a way to launch an attack. In this case, the problem is: who and why?

It’s a question of time

Currently, cyber attackers have relatively little incentive to launch attacks against space infrastructure. Only a few hackers may be interested, as there are few opportunities to make money.

The current situation of space cybercrime is dominated by state-sponsored actors, Yamout told us. These individuals and groups are not for money, but for information that can accelerate national space research or provide an intellectual advantage over their rivals. At the same time, cyber-mercenaries employed by private companies may also be involved in information-gathering activities at this stage.

But as the number of private companies operating in space increases (think space mining, telecommunications, and tourism), it opens the door to different types of attacks from a wider audience. range of stakeholders.

“Cybercriminals are only really interested in money,” Yamout explained. “Once the space is commercialized and the technology is sophisticated enough to install malware, criminals can deploy ransomware, for example, on critical infrastructure. “

“This is a big problem because space infrastructure is expensive and difficult to replace, which gives criminals great influence in negotiations.”

The basic principles of cybercrime are the same in space and on Earth. When money floods this industry, some can also go into the pockets of cybercriminals.

Hacktivists and script kiddies (amateur hackers trying to hone their skills) can launch sabotage attacks that bypass basic protection levels just to prove they can cause trouble. He says there is even.

Disaster scenario

In the worst-case scenario described by Yamout, a cyber attack on space infrastructure can endanger human life by causing loss of communication with Earth or loss of control of space equipment.

Spacecraft (manned and otherwise) rely heavily on communications to function. And the whims of nation states and cybercriminals can derail the shuttles and have fatal consequences.

According to Yamout, cybercriminals who succeed in invading the ground segment can also set up so-called “Kamikaze”. This can be responsible for colliding with technology deployed in the spatial layer (and cutting lines of communication in the process).

In some scenarios, the consequences of a cyber attack are felt most severely on Earth itself. Imagine a scenario where a cybercriminal interferes with a signal sent by a GPS satellite, stops a trip, or loses a vessel at sea.

According to Yamout, the best way to limit this type of attack is to hope that the industry will not only innovate in the space, but also recognize the importance of building security into infrastructure from the start. And raise awareness early in the cycle.

“History shows that new domains often start with few resources and basic functionality, opening the door to many cyber threats,” he added. “I hope we don’t make the same mistakes in the next cyber frontier, the universe.”

Drift from satellites and suicide shuttles: why cyber attacks pose a major threat to human ambition in space

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