According to three persons with direct knowledge of the situation, Western security services are probing a cyberattack by unidentified hackers that crippled broadband satellite internet connection in Ukraine coinciding with Russia’s invasion. Analysts from the National Security Agency of the United States, the French government cybersecurity organisation ANSSI, and Ukrainian intelligence are examining whether the remote sabotage of a satellite internet provider’s service was the work of Russian-state-backed hackers attempting to sever communications in advance of a battle.
Why has Satellite Hacking Become the Most Serious Global Threat to The United States, China, Russia, and India?
The rapid advancement of various governments’ and non-state actors’ cyber-security and electronic warfare capabilities poses a significant risk to owners of space assets in orbit. Rogue elements gaining control of a satellite could have disastrous effects.
Interfering with a satellite’s control systems could render it inoperable in orbit or even prevent access to its services. Jamming or spoofing satellite signals, as well as destroying essential infrastructures such as electric grids, water networks, and transportation systems, are all conceivable.
Some satellites utilise thrusters to modify speed and manoeuvre in orbit, which if tampered with can change the satellite’s direction and send it tumbling down to Earth. These steerable satellites have the most flaws, the most dangerous of which might be deploying them as a weapon in orbit to kill adversary assets like another satellite. China and Russia are rumoured to be working on directed-energy weapons, signal jammers, anti-satellite missiles, satellites that can go near enough to other satellites in orbit to robotically mess with them, and, of course, cyber capabilities.
Experts warn that as cyber warfare skills improve and the global arms race intensifies, the possibility of satellite hacking will grow. Satellites and associated ground systems are increasingly merely computers running specialised software, however, they frequently use conventional operating systems such as Unix or Linux. They are susceptible to the same types of cyber-attacks as any other computer system.
Although “control hacking” of a satellite is more difficult than stealing someone’s email, it is possible. Experts believe that hackers may simply acquire access to the ground station operating the satellite’s systems, after which gaining access to the satellite is a piece of cake. Countries with assets in space, notably the United States, China, and Russia, are becoming increasingly concerned about conflicts in space, where their vulnerabilities could be exploited.
Satellite Hacks in the Past
In 1998, hackers hijacked control of a US-German ROSAT X-Ray satellite and directed it to point its solar panels directly at the Sun, rendering it useless. They were able to hijack the satellite by gaining access to computers at Maryland’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The satellite’s batteries were destroyed, and it crashed back to Earth in 2011. In 1999, hackers took control of the UK’s Skynet satellites and demanded a ransom from the government.
In 2007-08, the US Air Force accused Chinese hackers of interfering with the operation of the earth observation satellites Landsat 7 and Terra (EOS AM-1) by exploiting a connection from a ground station. The hackers were suspected of being sponsored by the Chinese government, who were attempting to determine how vulnerable the satellite control systems were to cyber-attack. The Chinese hackers were once again accused of meddling with US weather systems and satellite networks in 2014. According to reports, hackers recently entered the government weather network, requiring cybersecurity professionals to encrypt data key to disaster preparation, aviation, shipping, and a slew of other critical applications. Officials from the Chinese government denied any role in the tragedy.
In October 2017, the Chinese were suspected of being involved in the interception of a high-profile Indian government meeting taking place through video chat via satellite. According to Indian media, the hackers continued to intercept the link for over 4-5 minutes before a counter-offensive was initiated to neutralise it.
Hacking into space objects, on the other hand, is not the same as hacking into web systems. To master a space system hack, you’ll need at least a basic understanding of orbital dynamics, ground station operation, sophisticated radio-frequency protocols, and, most significantly, an awareness of what a satellite’s circuit board looks like. As a result, launching such a difficult hack is not for everyone.
Spy Satellites on the Rise
Satellites employed wet film in the early days of space monitoring. The video had to be returned to Earth in a capsule, caught by a parachute device — an aeroplane equipped with a “catching bucket” — and carried to a lab for development. It could take days, weeks, or even months for the images to reach the people on the ground. Those early espionage satellites had a three- to four-week lifespan. They were also restricted by the amount of film they could transport. The friction of Earth’s atmosphere eventually dragged them back down, but they had already used up their film, so it didn’t matter.
However, it meant that every two weeks, the Americans and the Soviets deployed new spy satellites. Satellites now last for years, if not decades. Spy satellites had advanced into digital photography by the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, the number of photos that the satellites could store, as well as the number and frequency of opportunities for downlinking images back to Earth, were frequently limited or constrained.
Since the early days of the Cold War and the end of the Cold War, technology has grown to the point where we are virtually always being observed — for good or for bad — by the military, commercial, and non-governmental organisations. Satellites that monitor urban and rural development, agriculture, climate change, road traffic, and people smuggling are examples of this. Many of the companies involved in the project are commercial or civilian in nature. The NRO has begun collaborating with a commercial firm named Rocket Lab, which is based in New Zealand. In terms of technology, the line has blurred significantly, and the best civilian satellites are now taking photographs that would have only been available to military personnel less than 20 years ago. Governments still like to choose where their satellites gaze without having to ask anyone or let anyone else know, and a military satellite allows them to do so. Your data will also be less likely to be compromised, whereas a commercial satellite may be more vulnerable.
The number of operational satellites continues to rise. However, there is so much going on in the world that there aren’t enough hours in the day to cover everything, everywhere. As a result, we continue to launch satellites. As a result, some individuals are concerned about space congestion, such as satellites colliding, and the risk of space debris damaging other satellites or disrupting communications networks as a result of a collision.
Any government that can launch satellites can also destroy them by sending a missile that slams into a target. And governments have shown this – it is rumoured that the United States, China, and Russia have done it. However, because there are so many satellites now — both commercial and military — a government may be hesitant to launch such a war because there are simply too many to destroy. However, if countries place weapons in space, this might lead to an escalation, as it would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, and who knows what might happen after that.
It’s possible that we’re already seeing signals of escalation. When a Chinese satellite purportedly surveilled Ladakh, a contested region between India, Pakistan, and China, India was incensed. However, India also flew one over Tibet, another contentious region. To demonstrate its capability, India has shot one of its own satellites out of the sky. France also claims to be investing in space lasers.
We are on the verge of a potential space battle. Ex-President Trump’s announcement of the US Space Force foreshadowed this. America has stated unequivocally that no other country will have a dominant influence in cislunar space, and that the Space Force will defend and safeguard the Artemis Accords for returning to the moon by 2024 against any hostile action. As Europe joins the Artemis Accords, there is a worry that travelling from Earth to the moon will now be a joint venture with the US Space Force.
Cyber Warfare: The Ever-Growing Threat
For the past 100 years, there have been three military domains: land, sea, and air, each led by, but not limited to, its own military branch. All three have come to rely on cyber and space capabilities in recent decades, and have recognised them as distinct realms by establishing dedicated military commands.
Cyber and space share a unique connection, as evidenced by the fact that cyber is at the heart of the US Space Force and UK Space Command’s missions. The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) event, held every two years in London, inaugurated a Space Hub in 2019 to acknowledge the growing cross-domain importance of space. In 2021, it wanted to expand its space footprint under the direction of Dr Michael Holden, its newly hired space advisor. Every day, space-based assets support an estimated £1 billion in UK economic activity. Given this figure, the economic effect of losing space assets becomes evident – and cyber attacks are just one of the dangers.
There are three factors that are essential to protecting space-based assets from cyberattacks.
First, instead of handling cyber threats separately and simply erecting a firewall around a system, governments are adopting a risk and systems-based approach, identifying all the risks to a system and identifying all the risks to a system. Personnel, doctrine, processes, policy, law, and physical security, as well as technical factors, must all be taken into account. All of these factors must be taken into account when designing the protection, and a cohesive design and plan in terms of the risk-based approach must be created.
Second, any system must be assessed for risks and threats, which includes identifying them and determining the degree of the impact if they occur. Fallback plans must also be considered at this time so that if something unexpected occurs, you will know what to do in terms of reacting to and recovering from the situation. These days, risk management is more important than risk prevention.
Finally, it is critical to recognise that securing the system is not a one-time event. The system’s risks and threats are always changing, as is the impact of hazards occurring, as well as the severity, depending on what you’re attempting to accomplish. The risks and backup issues must be brought together in a coherent strategy, which necessitates a resource and cost-risk, as well as a cost-benefit trade-off, in order to come up with an overarching scheme.
Today, many countries have capabilities that may be used against space systems; yet, there is no public proof of cyber strikes. Countries such as the United States, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are believed to be capable of offensive cyberattacks against non-space targets.
Efforts to solve space cybersecurity are gaining traction, but progress is still gradual. The lack of any cybersecurity standards for satellites, as well as the lack of a regulating agency to control and assure their security, is a source of frustration for electronic warfare specialists. Currently, the individual firms that manufacture and operate satellites are responsible for their cyber security.