Posted 27 October 2022 in Blog, Security, Space.

In recent years, space and cybersecurity experts, such as RHEA, have noted a resurgence and increase in complexity of cyber threats in the space sector. In addition to the increase in the volume of hostile intent, the attack vectors have multiplied, and the issue of attack attribution is becoming increasingly challenging.

Based around the topology of a space system, with its different segments, this is the first in a series of posts that will explore the cyber threats in the space domain and the responses of industrial and state actors across the entire lifecycle of a space programme.

By Alexandre Otter, Chief Security Officer, RHEA Groupe France and Patrick Hébrard, Senior Cybersecurity Advisor, RHEA Groupe France

The acceleration of the digitalization of space systems, the expansion of the attack surface – i.e. the sum total of vulnerabilities accessible to a cyber attacker – and the increase in cyberattacks have led the space sector to elevate the cybersecurity of space systems to the rank of a major priority, for both the resilience of the sector and the services that depend on it.

A cyberattack on a space system is a hostile act that undermines the security of the information provided by it – that is, the availability, integrity or confidentiality of the data it produces. A cyberattack therefore directly affects the essential mission of a space system and potentially deprives users of the ‘continuity’ of the service that the system provides.

We can distinguish three main categories of space system missions.

The first is commercial or public interest missions that provide a service to civil society, such as Galileo- or EGNOS-type global navigation satellite systems (GNSS).

Then there are military missions that provide an exclusive service to authorized defence agencies, such as Earth observation for intelligence purposes, missile launch detection, electronic eavesdropping, space reconnaissance or secure communications.

And finally there are scientific missions whose objective is to advance research or deepen our knowledge of the world around us, such as the European Earth observation programme Copernicus.

What is different about cyberattacks in the space domain?

A cyberattack in the space domain is a ‘multi-dimensional’ variant of a conventional cyberattack.

The multiplicity of actors in the entire lifecycle of a programme are all sources of vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers, whether they are state, terrorist or mafia. This ranges from design to operations, the dissemination and interconnection of subsystems around the globe (some systems may require several dozen sites), the massive use of standard IT products, the reuse of source code in systems, the outsourcing of services in the cloud and multi-level subcontracting chains. And as in any sector, the human factor is often the weakest link in the cybersecurity of any organization.

But unlike conventional cyberattacks, a cyberattack targeting space systems would have a major direct impact on society – and even on the sovereignty of a state – given the increasing use of space technologies in our daily lives. Agribusiness, weather forecasting, navigation, communication networks (e.g. 5G which depends on GNSS), health, emergency services, energy and finance are all sectors that are increasingly dependent on space systems – both the satellite networks and the infrastructure and activities operated on the ground.

Rethinking cybersecurity ‘by design’

The profound transformation of the space sector’s business models in recent years, with the arrival of new approaches and new players, is an opportunity to rethink cybersecurity ‘by design’.

The space sector has opened up to private investment in recent years, leading to the emergence of ‘New Space’ start-ups whose disruptive codes are challenging the traditional space industry. With developments that are often more agile, more dynamic and more ‘connected’, these New Space players are also more exposed to cyber threats and often more vulnerable.

The current transformation of the industry may therefore be the saving grace that will allow players to rethink cybersecurity by integrating it into any space mission from its early conception – a necessary paradigm shift to allow the industry to fully seize the opportunities offered by digitalization while limiting the risks of a cyberattack.

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