FBI: Space industry espionage is latest cyber threat

The FBI and other counterintelligence agencies are warning that nation-state-sponsored cyber spies are actively trying to steal research and trade secrets from companies involved with the US space industry.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) issued a two-page bulletin Friday, Safeguarding the US Space Industry, naming Beijing and Moscow as the biggest threats.

"We anticipate growing threats to this burgeoning sector of the US economy," one counterintelligence official told Reuters news agency.

"China and Russia are among the leading foreign intelligence threats to the US space industry," they said.

"Space is fundamental to every aspect of our society, including emergency services, energy, financial services, telecommunications, transportation, food, and agriculture as they all rely on space services to operate," the bulletin states.

The intel shows that foreign threat actors are using cyberattacks and other techniques as a way to gain access to sensitive US information for their own governments’ space programs.

In some instances, unspecified foreign entities are strategically investing in joint business ventures and acquisitions, including targeting key supply chain nodes, as a way to gain access.

Intel officials say other methods used by the spies include requests to visit industry facilities and attending industry conferences to try and obtain confidential information.

The bulletin also warned US space companies to be aware of foreign recruiters targeting individual employees with overseas work offers and consultant positions, as well as blatant offers to pay the employees directly in exchange for intellectual property.

Space companies are being told to contact the FBI or AFOSI with suspicions of being targeted and to diligently track "peculiar incidents" and establish "insider threat" programs as part of vetting individuals in sensitive positions.

Although the space espionage campaigns are nothing new, Washington’s counterintelligence warnings are ramping up as the US space industry increases its billions of dollars in spending to develop new rockets and other space technology.

It is estimated the global space economy will grow from $469 billion in 2021 to more than $1 trillion by 2030, the United States being the main driver of this growth.

space investments chart
Image by National Counterintelligence and Security Center

“Foreign intelligence entities see US space-related innovation and assets as potential threats as well as valuable opportunities to acquire vital technologies and expertise,” the report said.

Exploiting the US space industry can ultimately harm US national and economic security, it said.

For years, US authorities say Chinese hackers have targeted companies involved in aviation, space, and satellite technology, at one point even gaining access to computers at the NASA Goddard Space Center and Jet Propulsion Laboratory located just outside Washington DC.

In 2019, Chinese national Tao Li was sentenced to more than three years in prison for conspiring to illegally export military and space-grade technology to the Communist regime.

US military officials say China has been clear on its intention to overshadow the US space program and become the world’s leader in space by 2045 as part of its military strategy.

China has said its space program is for peaceful purposes.