Why Satellites Need Cybersecurity Just Like You

Radio antennae
One of many radio antennae that space agencies use to communicate with satellites. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Any modern person who spends time on the internet is familiar with the basic principles of cybersecurity — but imagine you're in charge of a satellite that people around the globe rely on. Suddenly, changing a password every few months and hoping for the best doesn't seem quite vigilant enough.

And cybersecurity is indeed a threat countries need to consider to protect their satellites, Eric Fanning, head of the Aerospace Industries Association, a group of companies working on defense and aerospace, told Space.com.

"Satellites aren't just military tools. What we do every day in our lives [relies] on satellites," Fanning said, pointing to GPS, phone, and power networks that all rely on satellite infrastructure. And the more we use satellites, the more potentially harmful any loss of capability is, no matter what the cause. [In Photos: Indian Rocket Launches 31 Satellites to Earth Orbit]

But unlike, for example, physically ramming into a satellite, cyberattacks are often difficult to trace, he said. The attacks can also be more subtle than outright destruction. That makes these sorts of attacks particularly appealing for would-be mischief-makers.

"Generally, if you want to mess with someone's space capabilities, you want to do it anonymously if you can," Fanning said. "The ability to attribute [an attack] really lowers the inclination of someone to use something, because they know you'll come back at them."

Satellites also have a series of points of vulnerability, rather than a single entry point that's easier to defend. "The satellite isn't just sitting isolated up in space. It's having to communicate to be effective," Fanning said. "The satellites are controlled from the ground, and the information from satellites is relayed through the ground, so if you can get into those networks … then you've got your foot in the door to be able to do something with cyber[attacks]."

Similarly, satellites can be vulnerable to a number of different types of attacks that can be more difficult to interpret than physical damage. "You can mess with the signals that are going from the ground to the satellite or back," Fanning said. "Or, potentially more harmful, corrupt them … which causes you to question the value of the satellite in its entirety."

Compared to other space threats, like collisions (accidental and purposeful alike), cybersecurity is also more complicated because there are more potential players. Cyberattacks can be executed from the ground, and the attacker doesn't need to be a spacefaring nation.

In fact, an attacker doesn't need to be a country at all. "Nonstate actors don't have nuclear weapons that we know of," Fanning said. "But it's a lower barrier of entry to try to get in the cyberworld."

However, Fanning sees a few potential approaches to addressing the threat of cyberattacks on satellites. First, he said he thinks there is an opportunity to better address cyberspace within international agreements.

And then, there's the proliferation of satellites as they become smaller and cheaper to build. This proliferation of small satellites can increase the risks of individual satellites colliding, on purpose or accidentally. But the shift from large, expensive models means that replacing individual satellites will become easier and that losing an individual satellite will be less problematic, no matter what the cause of a loss.

"That right there is an important protective measure," Fanning said.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us @Spacedotcom and Facebook. Original article on Space.com.

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Meghan Bartels
Senior Writer

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.