Chatham House researchers warn space assets are ripe targets for cyber criminals, hackers and terrorists
Hackers pose risks to satellites and space-based communications technology, prompting the need for a radical review of cyber security to avert potentially catastrophic attacks.
Researchers from Chatham House’s International Security Department have warned that much of the world’s critical infrastructure, such as communications, air transport and defence systems, is dependent on space-based infrastructure.
Much like ground-based infrastructure, satellites and other space assets use digital technology which effectively make them vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Space: the new cyber frontier
The researchers warned that attacks on satellites could include jamming, spoofing and hacks against communications networks, control systems or mission packages, and attacks on ground infrastructure like satellite control centres.
“Possible cyber threats against space-based systems include state-to-state and military actions; well-resourced organised criminal elements seeking financial gain; terrorist groups wishing to promote their causes, even up to the catastrophic level of cascading satellite collisions; and individual hackers who want to fanfare their skills,” the researchers said.
Hack attacks from space could wreak havoc in orbit and on the ground, with the potential to wreck financial and trade systems or take over strategic weapons and defences.
Part of this problem stems from access to space technology no longer being the domain of the wealthiest government organisations and academia.
Instead, the rise of businesses turning their ambitions to the Earth’s orbit and beyond has meant access to space technology is now in the commercial domain rather than under the thumb of governmental security agencies. Effectively, access to space has become more widely available.
Given this situation and the speed at which technology evolves, Chatham House’s International Security Department has called for the a “radical review” of cyber security in space.
“Development of a flexible, multilateral space and cybersecurity regime is urgently required. International cooperation will be crucial, but highly regulated action led by government or similar institutions is likely to be too slow to enable an effective response to space-based cyber threats,” the researchers said, noting that the issues cannot be solved by technology alone and requires a wider approach to cyber security policy making.
“Instead, a lightly regulated approach developing industry-led standards, particularly on collaboration, risk assessment, knowledge exchange and innovation, will better promote agility and effective threat responses.”
Given how hackers have already breached the servers of the European Space Agency, and moon-shooting technology entrepreneurs like Elon Musk aiming for a huge space Internet, it would appear the concerns of the Chatham House researches are well founded.
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