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Here’s how attackers take down satellites and how we can stop them

As the protection of a fleet of more than 4,800 commercial satellites rises in importance, we are beginning to wonder: what would an attack really look like?

Most people are blissfully unaware of how reliant we have become on satellite infrastructure. The technology touches our daily lives, from live TV broadcasts worldwide and real-time weather forecasts to GPS systems helping everyone navigate land, sea, and air. However, as the number of satellites continues to increase to meet our insatiable appetite for real-time information, there is also an increasing concern about how a hacked satellite would impact society.

In these uncertain times of geopolitical conflict, the weaponization of space is also rapidly becoming a frighteningly real possibility.

Satellite hacks

A computer is the cheapest and most effective way for hackers to kill a satellite. At the recent media event, Silvia Diana, business development management manager at Thales, explained that most attacks come from the ground. The intruder typically penetrates the ground segment to send a wrong command or install malicious software that can later be uploaded to the satellite, the network of antennas on the ground, or the user terminal.

The main threat to Galileo, Europe's Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), is signal jamming. Such attacks could interrupt TV broadcasts, internet users' connectivity, and other remote systems that rely on the satellite to be connected. But, it's also important to remember that as well as navigation, GNSS is used for sending synchronized signals to high-speed networks that are used for banking systems.

Earth observation systems can also become a target for attacks by hackers who target the systems that distribute images. Once compromised, bad actors can steal images, modify them or create a denial of service attack. As well as impacting military or intelligence systems, these attacks can damage scientific studies that lose credibility if they are based on corrupted data. Many predict that deepfake satellite imagery will become the next battleground, but this is just the beginning of a new range of threats.

Detecting cyber threats on space systems

A more proactive approach to cybersecurity means a protection solution is no longer enough. As a result, Thales adapted its technologies dedicated to sensitive and critical infrastructures to address the satellite domain with tailored capabilities to detect threats before they become a problem. The company relies on a Siebel sensor network probe that listens to satellite protocols, arrays, cyber event alerts, and generates metadata.

The detection system also heavily relies on Cybels Analytics, which leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics technologies to analyze alerts and discover suspicious behavior, past cyber events, or surveys. It operates as a single platform that enables users to adapt the AI algorithms to the specific operational context of space systems. But human threat intelligence experts are crucial in continuously updating the threat landscape knowledge.

When it's decided that we send a tiny robot to the moon, it instantly becomes a target for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities or infect with malware. So rather than looking to the skies and pondering how we can secure everything we have put into space, there needs to be cybersecurity accountability from the beginning.

Cybersecurity from the beginning

In an ideal world, every third party working on hardware, operating systems, and software development that will be used by shuttles, rockets, and satellites will need to be united on a DevSecOps security-first mindset. Unfortunately, although it sounds simple, having multiple stakeholders working on different parts of the infrastructure and components makes it difficult to identify the responsibility or liability needed to build resilience in the industry.

From the beginning of the development process to the entire life cycle of every component, there needs to be a zero-trust approach from both public and private companies. The road to secure space system architectures will include data encryption, intrusion detection sensors, and increasingly sophisticated tools that will enable all stakeholders to better understand the threats across every space-based system.

Recent news that Space Force is rolling out new cyber standards for satellite providers is a massive step in the right direction. With the right tools and measures combined with complete alignment from the outset, partners can simulate real-world cybersecurity scenarios and ensure everything is secure from the launchpad onwards.

As the proliferation of launching small satellites into orbit gathers pace, it's time to think about the new attack surfaces being added to the threat landscape. So, before we get too excited about moonshots and the mouthwatering prospect of humans becoming interplanetary species, our journey needs to start with security by design from the beginning rather than as an afterthought.

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