Despite the complexities of satellite technology, several reports and experts have pointed out that hackers can take control of these systems. Since there are few security standards, hacking a satellite appears to be easy by exploiting vulnerabilities, something which happened to the European Space Agency.
Recently, a group of ethical hackers gained access to a satellite’s onboard system, using standard access permissions to take control of its application environment, and then exploited various vulnerabilities to install malicious code into the satellite’s systems.
It was a team of four cybersecurity researchers from a global technology company Thales and they hacked into ESA’s OPS-SAT demonstration nanosatellite. The space agency challenged the security experts to disrupt the operation of the satellite’s system.
The hacking enabled them to compromise the data sent back to Earth, specifically by modifying the images captured by the satellite’s camera, as well as achieve other goals such as masking specific geographic areas in satellite imagery while concealing their activities to avoid detection by ESA.
This exercise was specifically organised for CYSAT to assist in assessing the possible impact of an actual cyberattack and the ramifications for civilian systems. ESA has access to the satellite’s systems during the exercise to maintain control and assure a restoration to normal operation.
The success of this hacking attempt proves that such systems, revolving around the Earth, collecting and transmitting data to Earth, are vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Considering the threat Pierre-Yves Jolivet, VP of Cyber Solutions at Thales, said: “With the growing number of military as well as civil applications that are reliant on satellite systems today, the space industry needs to take cybersecurity into account at every stage in the satellite’s life cycle, from initial design to systems development and maintenance.”
According to previous reports, US officials claim that in 2007 and 2008, China-backed hackers allegedly utilised a ground station connection to disrupt the operation of the Landsat 7 and Terra (EOS AM-1) Earth observation satellites.
Now, recent reports have revealed that China, which has repeatedly been accused of being behind hacking attacks against infrastructure and companies, is apparently developing advanced cyber weapons to seize control of enemy satellites.
It was also claimed that these cyber weapons would render satellites inoperable when transmitting data or conducting surveillance during a conflict.
So it is a fact that even though satellites have revolutionised the world in several ways if hackers get control of these systems, the repercussions could be disastrous.
It is possible that hackers may just shut down satellites, limiting access to their services or they might potentially jam communications, wreaking disorder on crucial infrastructure such as electric grids, water networks, and transportation systems, and could also cause international security issues.
China’s moves ‘concerning’
Major Vineet, who is the Founder and Global President of CyberPeace Foundation, told News18: “The recent reports of China’s alleged development of cyber weapons to hijack satellites and the incident involving the ESA’s OPS-SAT demonstration nanosatellite are indeed concerning.”
Being prepared to combat such actors is pertinent for the national space agencies, he said. “It is imperative that nations collaborate to develop robust cybersecurity measures and policies to protect satellite systems and promote responsible behaviour in cyberspace,” he added.
Additionally, he believes that strengthening international collaboration and encouraging debate on space security will be critical in resolving these challenges and maintaining the safety and resilience of outer space activities regarding cyberattacks.
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