Modern civilization is utterly dependent on satellite infrastructure. Experts point to cyber threats as the primary disruptor of that relationship.
While it's no surprise that the military depends on satellites, people rarely stop to think how much their everyday life also relies on these artificial moons.
From a ride-sharing passenger or driver to a stockbroker, almost everyone depends on flawless satellite communication to obtain the digital services they need.
Power grids, cloud storage, air traffic, financial transactions, location-based services, ATMs, and modern communication all rely on a functioning satellite infrastructure.
"Strong dependence of many terrestrial services on satellites means that interruption or a shutdown of space services would be catastrophic."-Mathieu Bailly, head of Space Business Unit at CYSEC SA
Businesses that accept cashless payments, order goods from overseas, use the internet to communicate, or depend on electricity for power would suffer major, if not fatal, operational disruptions if the satellite technology underpinning these services were compromised.
According to Mathieu Bailly, head of Space Business Unit at CYSEC SA, a data security company, it's hard to fathom the impact of a global attack on the satellite grid.
"Strong dependence of many terrestrial services on satellites means that interruption or a shutdown of space services would be catastrophic," Bailly told CyberNews.
Weakness in numbers
Since 1957 - when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite - various space agencies have put 10-60 satellites in orbit annually. This trend lasted well into the last decade until the commercialization of space took off.
At this point, companies like SpaceX entered the market, and sending objects to space started to become a lot cheaper. Meanwhile, a trove of startups developed small and functional satellites, dubbed CubeSats. Dozens of these nanosatellites can fit on a single reusable rocket, pushing down the price of space exploration.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, over 1,300 new satellites were put into orbit in the first nine months of last year. That is 200 more than in the whole of 2020, and almost five times as many as in 2019.
But satellites are little more than computers in outer space - and no computer is immune to hacking. With their numbers increasing, so does the probability that a threat actor will try to hack into one.
"With more and more satellites in orbit, more data is collected and transmitted via these satellites. That means they are a more attractive target to cybercriminals," Bailly explained.
Until now, few threats have realistically posed any severe danger to the global satellite infrastructure. Among the most devastating scenarios are a geomagnetic storm caused by a massive solar flare accompanied by an accelerated release of plasma from the sun. Known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), this can have catastrophic consequences for humanity.
In 1859, a geomagnetic storm - thought to be the largest of its kind in 500 years - destroyed telegraph systems in North America and Europe, setting communication poles on fire and electrocuting operators.
Until recently, another major threat, the Kessler Syndrome, was only theoretically possible.
"While cyber security and satellites have not often appeared together, the merging of these two areas will be a big focus in 2022."-Dr. Eric Cole, former CTO of McAfee and chief scientist for Lockheed Martin
Named after former NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler, the theory suggests that orbital collisions between objects would cause a cascade in which every subsequent impact increased the likelihood of more crashes.
Taken to its extreme, the Kessler syndrome would render Earth’s lower orbit unusable for several generations.
However, a recent paper by Charlotte Van Camp and Walter Peeters, researchers at the International Space University (ISU) in France, shows that it is neither the sun, nor the militarization of space, nor even space debris that concerns scientists the most.
A survey of more than a hundred experts shows that cyber threats are viewed as the most significant concern for satellite security.
In fact, the darkest scenario outlined by the Kessler Syndrome could result directly from a hacked satellite, they say.
Satellites operate in an extremely hostile environment. Thus only the most valuable items, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, receive direct human maintenance in case of a malfunction.
This means that the majority of space installations need to be as self-reliant as possible. With no prospect of upkeep or battery change, sustained efficiency is a critical component in the design of satellites.
"Whenever you have power as a design constraint, cyber security tends to take a back seat and not get addressed," Dr. Eric Cole, a veteran cyber security expert, told CyberNews.
As with many non-military systems, cyber security in satellites might not be the primary concern of the device manufacturer. There's still little to no regulation of cyber security for satellites, leaving safety a rather optional feature.
"Satellites were built for functionality and had to fit into a very constrained design factor, therefore there are not a lot of security features, and the main reason they have not been attacked is because of easier targets [on Earth]," Cole explained.
Last year ransomware, a practice of infecting computer systems with malware for financial extortion, broke into the mainstream and became common knowledge.
The hackings of Colonial Pipeline, meat supplier JBS and software vendor Kaseya showed how vulnerable critical infrastructure is. Worryingly, installations in space are hardly any different.
In the last couple of years, the business of ransomware has become highly specialized. Affiliates rent the attack-ready malware, seek dollar-rich targets, and purchase entry from initial access brokers.
"Because of the critical availability aspect, ransomware is a big threat to satellites."-Dr. Eric Cole
The logic is brutally simple: the more expensive downtime is for a company, the higher the probability of receiving a ransom payment. That's why hospitals, energy companies, and large service providers are among the most lucrative targets.
"Satellites are used for two primary purposes: communication and tracking. Therefore, if someone can hack these devices, those are the two attack vectors. And because of the critical availability aspect, ransomware is a big threat to satellites," Cole said.
While many modern services, from crop monitoring to global internet coverage, rely on satellite infrastructure, there's hardly a more lucrative target than the Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).
The best known GNSS is the US-owned and license-free Global Positioning System (GPS). Interestingly, the 'positioning' part is only one reason why the functionality of GPS is crucial to the global economy.
GPS allows service providers to measure time with near-perfect precision all over the world. That's why, for example, a money withdrawal from an ATM in Beijing registers in a user's bank in Paris almost instantaneously. The exact timing, down to microseconds, prevents unauthorized overdrafts and limits fraud.
The same goes for the global financial system. Split-second transactions, the backbone of any stock or cryptocurrency exchange, are only possible because of space infrastructure.
Even a brief disruption to such an essential system makes any ransom demand worth paying, given what's at stake.
In the focus
GPS, however, is maintained by the military, meaning there are many additional security layers to protect the system.
Because the US government built the system, it's a custom-made machine, making it harder for non-state threat actors to breach it. But most new satellites run on off-the-shelf hardware and software, breaking with the tradition of using only customized equipment in space.
According to Charles Denyer, a veteran cybersecurity expert, the protection of space infrastructure, especially the increasing fleet of commercial satellites, is of upmost importance.
"While many of the military's systems were not built for cyberspace - and they are now racing to upgrade them - the private sector should heed the warning now by implementing cyber measures for ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of satellites," Denyer told CyberNews.
With cyber security taking a back seat, many of these privately-owned satellites could prove easy targets for criminals hungry for ransoms.
"While cyber security and satellites have not often appeared together, the merging of these two areas will be a big focus in 2022," Cole said.
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