One thing that is very apparent in the world of cybersecurity is that it is constantly evolving. As more systems become networked, the landscape for enterprising hackers and bad actors keeps getting more interesting.
Every new system and means of networked communication becomes a new challenge and a potential source of revenue for someone. For others, it becomes a political malaise or something new to explore. Each of these new opportunities becomes a new frontier to conquer. We have seen many frontiers in the world of cybersecurity challenges. Finance, healthcare, military systems, power grids, water, petroleum, and the list goes on.
That brings us to space, the final frontier, as it was called in the opening sequences of the Star Trek series. That mysterious void we fantasized about as young children and into adulthood. However, it is no longer a mysterious void. Space is a busy avenue of networked devices that humanity relies on for much of our communication and defense.
Today we have many active satellites used for GPS systems that we rely on for transportation systems and managing and controlling things such as farming equipment. Satellite-based systems are used in the telecom industry and for information and entertainment systems. They are also used for missile defense systems in the military.
In almost all cases, failures in these systems can cause significant headaches. I recall an issue with satellite failures that caused some gas stations to stop processing point-of-sales transactions in the early 2000s.
I recently read an interesting article on Cybernews.com titled “Aerospace industry needs to wake up to cyber threats” that talks about how the space industry is lagging when it comes to cyber preparedness.
Despite the many advancements in technology that go into modern space systems and satellites, the ground communications systems critical for launching and managing these space-based systems are rather ancient from a technological perspective. It is the same issue we have seen (and continue to see) with critical infrastructure control systems.
The operating systems used on these systems are very reliable. However, they have become increasingly vulnerable to cyber-attacks as they have aged. As the article points out, some of the ground control systems still in use today date back to the 1970s, before anyone was even remotely aware of how to build a system that would be cyber-resilient into the future. All this was fine until operators connected these systems to remotely accessible networks. Now they are pretty vulnerable.
So when we talk about space being the final frontier for hackers, it is essential to understand that they do not need to figure out how to access and attack a space station or satellite directly. All they need to do is figure out how to access and attack a relatively ancient (in technical terms) ground control system.
The next race is on.