Telecoms & satcoms

What cyber risks are present in satellite communication infrastructure?


In global communications, satellite systems play an important role in all sorts of sectors, such as defence, banking, and emergency services. With the dramatic increase in the number of satellites — from 3,700 tracked by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2021 to over 8,243 objects in space today — the importance of satellite cyber security has never been more critical. This surge not only is an indicator of the reliance on satellite technology but also all of the vulnerabilities that come with an expanding space-based infrastructure.

The expanding threat surface

As the domain of space becomes increasingly crowded, the cyber risks associated with satellite communications (satcom) infrastructure have escalated. Each satellite launched adds to a complex network that is not just a feat of engineering but also a potential target for cyber threats. The integration of satellites in daily operations, from navigation to transaction synchronisation, means that any disruption can have far-reaching consequences.

Satellite cyber security must address various forms of interference and intrusion. These range from signal jamming and spoofing, where malicious actors create false signals or jam communications, to more sophisticated forms of cyber attacks aimed at taking control of the satellites themselves.

Critical vulnerabilities in satellite systems

  1. Command and control interference: Satellites are controlled by ground-based stations, which send commands and receive data through communication links. If hackers gain access to these links, they could potentially take control of the satellites, redirecting or disabling them. Such breaches could lead to losing critical data and functionality, impacting military operations, financial systems, and safety services
  2. Data integrity and confidentiality: The data transmitted between Earth and satellites must be secure and accurate. Any alteration in the transmitted data could lead to incorrect information being relayed, causing errors in navigation, communication, and intelligence. Protecting the integrity and confidentiality of satellite-transmitted data is a fundamental aspect of satellite cyber security
  3. Onboard software vulnerabilities: Like any other computer system, satellites operate using complex software that can have vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities can be exploited by cyber attackers to disrupt satellite operations. Regular updates and rigorous security protocols are essential to safeguard satellite software

The implications of satellite cyber security failures

The consequences of compromised satellite cyber security are vast. In military contexts, adversaries could gain operational intelligence or disrupt communications. In the civilian sphere, disruptions could lead to failures in navigation systems, financial transaction delays, and compromised emergency response capabilities.

For example, a banking system that relies on satellite timings for transaction synchronisation could experience outages, leading to financial losses and reduced consumer trust. Similarly, emergency services that depend on accurate GPS data could find their response times and routing accuracy severely impacted by satellite communication failures.

Strengthening satellite cyber security

Addressing the cyber risks in satellite communications involves a multi-faceted approach:

  • Enhanced encryption: Implementing robust encryption for command and data transmission can prevent unauthorised access and ensure data integrity
  • Layered defence strategies: Utilising a layered security approach that includes real-time monitoring, anomaly detection, and response mechanisms can help mitigate potential threats promptly
  • International collaboration: As satellites operate globally, international cooperation is crucial for establishing and maintaining security standards and protocols. Sharing information about threats and vulnerabilities can help prevent and mitigate cyber attacks
  • Regular Audits and Updates: Continuous monitoring and updating of satellite systems can help identify and rectify vulnerabilities before they can be exploited

Satcoms FAQ’s:

How do encryption technologies in satellite communications compare to those used in terrestrial networks?

Encryption technologies in satellite communications have some unique challenges compared to terrestrial networks. The primary issue is the need for encryption methods that can handle long distances and the corresponding time delays in signal transmission, which are not as prevalent in terrestrial communications. Additionally, satellite communication channels often experience higher error rates and require robust encryption algorithms that maintain integrity over less stable connections.

Moreover, satellite systems must employ encryption that minimises the computational load on the satellite hardware, which is typically less powerful than ground-based systems due to power and space limitations. Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is commonly used for encrypting satellite data due to its balance of security and performance. It provides a strong level of encryption while being efficient enough to operate in the resource-constrained environment.

What international bodies are responsible for regulating and protecting satellite cyber security?

Several international organisations play key roles in regulating and protecting satellite cyber security. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is one of the primary bodies; it develops technical standards that ensure the reliable and secure use of telecommunications, including satellite communications. The ITU also allocates global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, which are crucial for preventing interference and ensuring the integrity of satellite operations.

Another important entity is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which promotes international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space. UNOOSA works to enhance the use of space technology and ensure security in space operations, including cyber security aspects.

Further to this, regional bodies like the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the US also contribute to setting standards and practices for satellite cyber security within their respective jurisdictions. These organisations collaborate with other international partners to share knowledge, develop security protocols, and respond to emerging cyber threats in the space sector.

The rising need for cyber security solutions

The growing dependency on satellite technology coupled with the increasing complexity of cyber threats presents a significant challenge to satellite cyber security. As space becomes more congested and the number of satellite launches continues to rise, the need for robust cyber security measures becomes increasingly imperative.

Ensuring the resilience of satellite infrastructures against cyber threats is essential for national security and maintaining the functionality of global economies and safety services. By acknowledging the risks and reinforcing the security of satellite communications, we can safeguard this vital infrastructure against the evolving landscape of cyber threats.

Get in touch with us at CyberHive to discuss how we can advance your cyber security strategy. You can also start using CyberHive Connect for free to start protecting your organisation or business today.

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