The United States aims to protect every potential cyberattack vector. Ethical hacking experts report that the National Security Agency (NSA) is working with artificial intelligence to find any evidence of anomalous behavior on US satellites and determine if they are under the control of any adversary nation.
At a recent cybersecurity event, Aaron Ferguson, head of the NSA’s Office of Encryption Solutions, stated that “the agency is looking for the best way to characterize telemetry data on satellites to make some adjustments while new satellites are put online.” The plan would even include the collaboration of independent researchers.
The NSA’s plan stems from the behavior observed on many satellites. Most small satellites operate in the earth’s low orbit; in the event that a satellite trades or moves to higher regions, different data is sent, proof of abnormal behavior. This data can serve as indicators of some kind of intrusion, however, it is necessary to analyze too much information before determining a cyberattack attempt; this is the reason why the NSA will try to use artificial intelligence to try to find malicious intrusion indicators, mention the experts in ethical hacking.
Although it looks like a sci-fi theme, hacking a satellite is a real possibility; according to a report long published by ethical hacking experts from the International Institute of Cyber Security (IICS) although these teams operate highly specialized and sophisticated software, they run public domain operating systems, such as Linux or Unix, which makes them vulnerable to any variant of cyberattack against any other known system.
On the other hand, Bill Malik, from security firm Trend Micro, argues: “Although it’s not as simple as taking control of an email account, a hacker with the necessary resources can inadvertently take control of a satellite. The key is to compromise the satellite’s control systems on earth,” he says. Malik also mentioned that there are at least six successful hacking attempts against NASA satellites, all of which occurred between 2006 and 2011.
Ethical hacking specialists say this is a threat that has grown recently, as the technical resources to deploy these attacks are becoming less expensive, and the benefits to hackers can be really high. Different industries and services, such as systems for agriculture, could be affected by attacks on satellites.
As for defense systems, hackers could take control of monitoring satellites to disable them or alter the transmission of information, in a scenario similar to that that which occurred more than 20 years ago, when a group of threat actors seized the ROSAT satellite, used for astronomical research purposes, to overload its battery, causing a complete collapse in its system.
Other members of the cybersecurity community believe that the increasing development of these small satellites has also contributed to increased security risks. John Raymond of the US Air Force said, “We shouldn’t just take care of putting a functional, space-resistant satellite into orbit, it also needs to be guaranteed to defend against potential cyberattacks,” he concluded.