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Why Space Is The Next Frontier For Cybersecurity

Managing Director at RSI Security, helping organizations achieve cybersecurity and compliance success.

With projects like Blue Origin and SpaceX, private-sector innovators like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are pursuing outer space endeavors at seemingly breakneck speed. These projects give us a glimpse of what’s possible, making outer space travel and industry seem reachable within our lifetimes.

But with the digital technology and software required to make that happen, it’s time to start assessing things from a cybersecurity perspective. In fact, both the private and public sectors are already beginning to tackle what cybersecurity means in the context of outer space. Satellites already transmit sometimes sensitive data to and from Earth, making them a potential target for hackers or malicious actors. Also, just because a satellite is in orbit doesn’t mean that ground station facilities aren’t already a target for cybercriminals.

Making space technology infrastructure and communications as safe as possible will require innovative thinking and new partnerships. Recognizing the challenges, building upon current cybersecurity efforts and implementing space-oriented regulatory frameworks are the key factors for the final frontier.

Unique Cybersecurity Challenges Facing Space

In many ways, space industry and technology rely on the same infrastructure and carry out many similar functions of our terrestrial digital world. But the main challenges arise from scale, distance and the criticality of systems and equipment functioning. If a hacker were to penetrate earth-based systems and provide false information to a satellite, for instance, it could cause an inter-space collision and potentially take out major communications systems globally.

Secondly, more governments and private organizations are becoming more involved with space projects than ever before. While this lowered barrier to entry increases innovation and discovery, it also enhances the number of potential access points for hackers. NASA is no longer the main player to be safeguarded. Malicious actors now have many more options to target, from other governments to equipment manufacturers along the supply chain.

The rise of advanced technology that can be used for hacking — such as quantum computers — also poses a significant cybersecurity threat to the space-based ecosystem. As things like space tourism and militarization grow, so will the focus of hackers that recognize the potential monetary value of ransomware and other attacks. Combine this with the severe lack of international cybersecurity cooperation with space technology, and we see a plethora of hurdles that need to be overcome in the next few decades.

What The Industry Can Do To Make Space Safe

The good news is that companies and governments across the board are beginning to take a forward-thinking stance at emerging cybersecurity threats to space equipment, software and communications. Space equipment manufacturers Boeing and Northrup Grumman even hosted a recent webinar discussing how to lower cybersecurity risk in the design of space-bound equipment.

I completely agree with one of the main points made by these two companies: We need upfront cybersecurity accountability from the very beginning. This doesn’t just go for equipment and hardware, but for operating systems and software that will be used by shuttles, rockets and satellites. It’s easy for engineers or globally distributed software developers to take a product- and functionality-first approach, but emphasizing security at all phases of the process is paramount.

Finally, the private and public sectors need to collaborate and conduct as many real-world cybersecurity scenarios and exercises before equipment gets sent into orbit. Things like penetration testing and breach response need to be drilled exhaustively. Because once the equipment is sent into space, it becomes extremely difficult to adjust on the fly if gaps crop up. 

The Role Of Regulatory Bodies And Frameworks

Governments and international bodies need to implement global standards for hacker-proofing technology along the entire space supply chain. In addition, there are existing cybersecurity standards that can be tweaked and implemented to make the space industrial ecosystem more secure.

One such solution that is already being discussed is the zero trust architecture. With zero trust, devices and equipment are hermetically sealed from a system’s access standpoint, limiting unauthorized user access even within an organization. Zero trust reduces operational risk because even if a hacker gains access to systems on earth, gaining additional access is almost impossible due to zero trust architecture’s decentralized nature.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the United States could also play a pivotal role in pushing standardized cybersecurity frameworks. Just last month, NIST introduced a reference document for how cybersecurity standards may be introduced for commercial satellite operations. Once NIST receives industry feedback, more concrete recommendations should emerge.

With the private sector making even more daring endeavors into orbit, it’s undeniable that more of our terrestrial-based economy will be intertwined with space technology and activity. The challenge of safeguarding that infrastructure from hackers is unparalleled, but not impossible. By building on existing private-public partnerships and formulating innovative frameworks that all organizations can adopt globally, we can securely explore the final frontier free from cybercrime.


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