Satellite Security: A Looming Threat to Operators and Organisations

A recent analysis by a group of German academics has shed light on the alarming state of satellite security, revealing that these crucial systems are riddled with basic security flaws. This poses significant threats not only to satellite operators but also to a wide range of organisations that rely on these systems.

The researchers, from the Ruhr University Bochum and the Cispa Helmholtz Center for Information Security, examined the software used by three small satellites. They found that these systems lack basic protections, with vulnerabilities in their firmware indicating that little security research from the last decade has reached the space domain.

Among the issues discovered were a lack of protection for who can communicate with the satellite systems and a failure to include encryption. Theoretically, these vulnerabilities could allow an attacker to take control of a satellite and crash it into other objects.

The State of Satellite Security

Johannes Willbold, a PhD student at Ruhr University Bochum and the lead researcher behind the security analysis, describes the current state of satellite security as “security by obscurity.” This means that little is known about how well these systems are protected. The research team approached multiple organisations with satellites in space to inspect their firmware, but the majority refused or didn’t reply.

The three satellites that the team was able to inspect were used for research, operated largely by universities, and flew in low Earth orbit. These were the ESTCube-1, an Estonian cube satellite; the European Space Agency’s OPS-SAT, an open research platform; and the Flying Laptop, a mini satellite created by Stuttgart University and defence firm Airbus.

The researchers found six kinds of security vulnerabilities across all three satellites and 13 vulnerabilities in total. Among these were “unprotected telecommand interfaces,” which satellite operators on the ground use to communicate with the vehicles when they are in orbit. According to Willbold, these interfaces often lack access protection, meaning they’re essentially not checking anything.

The Impact on Operators and Organisations

The implications of these findings are far-reaching. Satellite operators are directly at risk due to the vulnerabilities in the systems they manage. However, the threat extends beyond these operators to a wide range of organisations that rely on satellite systems for their operations.

For instance, commercial companies that use satellites for photographing the Earth and providing navigation data could be severely impacted by a breach in satellite security. Similarly, military satellites, often used for spying, could be compromised, posing a significant threat to national security.

Moreover, the research highlights wider security issues around satellites that experts have been concerned about for years. Gregory Falco, an assistant professor at Cornell University who focuses on space cybersecurity, says it is rare for researchers to be able to get their hands on satellite firmware and publish research on it. He adds that there’s “almost nothing” publicly available that’s similar to the type of analysis the German team completed.

The Need for Improved Security Measures

The findings of this research underscore the urgent need for improved security measures in the space domain. As experts continue to sound the alarm around space cybersecurity issues, the commercial space sector is going through a boom. Companies like SpaceX are racing to put thousands of satellites into orbit to provide internet connections, and it has become cheaper for satellites to photograph Earth from space.

However, this rapid growth in the commercial space sector, coupled with the lack of adequate security measures, poses significant risks. Falco warns that many companies building components and parts to be included in spacecraft are not prioritising security. He says, “They probably don’t have any people who know anything about it on their staff.”

In response to these concerns, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association announced a new effort in June this year to introduce common practices and requirements for cybersecurity across the space industry.

In conclusion, the state of satellite security is a pressing concern that requires immediate attention. Satellite operators and organisations that rely on these systems must prioritise security to mitigate the risks posed by these vulnerabilities. As the commercial space sector continues to grow, the need for robust security measures becomes increasingly critical to ensure the safe and secure operation of these crucial systems.

Further Reading

  1. Satellites Are Rife With Basic Security Flaws – This article from Wired provides a detailed overview of the German research team’s findings on the vulnerabilities in satellite security.
  2. Space Cybersecurity: An Emerging Field – An article by Gregory Falco, an assistant professor at Cornell University, discussing the emerging field of space cybersecurity.
  3. Satellite Security in the Age of Space Exploration – This piece from the European Space Agency explores the importance of security in the age of space exploration.
  4. The Threat of Cyber Attacks on Satellites – An in-depth report by the Royal United Services Institute on the potential threats posed by cyber attacks on satellites.
  5. IEEE Standards for Space Cybersecurity – Information on the new effort by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association to introduce common practices and requirements for cybersecurity across the space industry.
  6. The Role of Satellites in Modern Society – An article by NASA explaining the role of satellites in modern society and why their security is crucial.
  7. Cybersecurity and Space: The Next Frontier? – A blog post by RAND Corporation discussing the intersection of cybersecurity and space, and the challenges that lie ahead.