Cyber-Attacks: A Major Challenge Faced by the Telecommunications Satellites
Just a month ago, governments and cyber security experts across the globe scampered to avert a potential chaos that could have been brought by a massive cyber attack – considered the biggest ransomware attack in history – targeting computer systems. Healthcare facilities in the UK were among the first to be alarmed. The NHS was badly hit by the “ransomware” attack that demanded payment to regain access to important medical records. This cyber attack in UK’s healthcare management system, if not managed early on, could have cost lives. The attack was not confined to UK’s NHS, it has a global scale that spread across governments, institutions and companies worldwide, including Germany’s rail operator, US-based international shipper FedEx Corp, and Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica. While the impact of the ransomware on Telefonica was limited to internal networks and had no direct impact on network operations, it foreshadows how disruptive these incursions can be in the modern life.
The chances of cyber attacks trained at telecommunications satellite is not a far fetched eventuality, especially with cyber criminals now becoming bolder and more equipped. In the 2011 report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, it revealed several attempts to breach into a US-Geological Survey Earth-imaging satellite, Landsat-7, and NASA climate change sensors, Terra AM-1. Although no damage was inflicted into both satellites, the cyber criminals were able to achieve all steps necessary to command the satellites.
In a 2014 paper by IOActive, a US-based cyber-security firm, it has reported several vulnerabilities in existing satellite communication terminals used by commercial, government and military operations. The forensic study has found multiple potential hacker entry points.
This most recent attack rings warning bells for all stakeholders to ensure satellite systems used for telecommunications are secured. Telecommunications companies and fleet operators must gear up to prevent a potential global catastrophe in case a malicious breach into their system happens. Security experts are challenging commercial satellite operators to tighten security to level with that of military satellites or even better.
What if a cyber attack is directed at telecommunications satellites?
A successful attack on telecommunications satellites can lead to unthinkable scenarios such as a massive disruption in communications, espionage, jamming and even commandeering satellites to collisions – to name a few. It may not seem obvious but life in this planet has become so reliant on satellites that any major breach can cause havoc.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), there are 1,459 operating satellites orbiting the space, more than half of which are communications satellites. Of this number, around 38% operate for commercial communications and another 16% for government communications. Satellites used for telecommunications functions account for almost half of all the satellites in orbit. This means future attempts to hack satellites could probably hit those used in telecommunications.
Considering the volume of information that these satellites manage and the array of industries that are wholly or partially dependent on them, it makes it imperative to protect them from attacks. Not to mention, the amount of money that the telecommunications industry costs – which makes it a prime target for cyber criminals.
What are the threats to telecommunications satellites?
Satellite hacking can be done in several ways that include:
The most prevalent hacking threat, jamming is done by overpowering a signal, a receiver, or a transmitted to interfere with legitimate transmission. Usually, the attacker sends noxious signals directly toward the satellite using a rogue uplink station. The jamming signals then override the legitimate transmission thereby preventing it from reaching its designated recipient.
Aside from being the oldest form of hacking, interference is also the main cause of degradation and impairment of satellite services. In telecommunications satellites, it can be used to interfere with data transmission such as for censorship purposes.
Since jamming can be done using off-the-shelf technology, detection and attribution of intermittent jamming is quite a challenge. Several instances of satellite jamming have been noted in the past that included military satellites used during the Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As the name suggest, this threat enables the attacker to gain access to the transmitted data. Although many satellites now use secured data transmission, decrypting these data is just a breeze. The internet hosts plenty of resources on how to use equipment readily available on the market to intercept satellite transmissions such as that of satellite telephone conversation and satellite broadcast media.
How this cyber attack can be easily done on satellite phones using an off-the-shelf product and a computer was demonstrated in 2012 by two German security researchers.
Some cyber security experts have suggested encryption of data on satellite transmissions. However, commercial satellite operators weigh on its effects on the costs of operation and its overall performance. This opens up an opportunity for hackers.
This threat characterizes the unauthorized access and control of a satellite. For instance, a signal from a telecommunications satellite can be seized and the broadcast replaced with another. The hackers can acquire the data being transmitted and alter it (spoofing) as it travels.
Further, the hackers can control part or the entire satellite architecture including the payload, bus and ground station. Once in control, it can commandeer the satellite in orbit. Attacks on media broadcasts and Internet data connections are prevalent. Some of the most recent telecommunications satellite hijacking attacks include the 2007 hack of Intelsat satellites where the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka broadcast propaganda and the 2013 broadcast of a Zombie invasion via TV stations in Michigan and Montana.
Securing satellite systems is a priority that must not be limited only to military-grade satellites. With cyber criminals now becoming more aggressive, proper countermeasures must be put in place.
Useful countermeasures to safeguard satellite architectures are the encryption of data and the hardening of the satellite’s every single component, including ground stations.
Data encryption protects the signals from spoofing attacks as well as attempts to eavesdrop. However, encryption should be considered not as the definitive solution but as an added layer of defense. Commercial satellite operators must weigh its repercussions such as high operation costs, additional maintenance activities, and its toll on the satellite’s performance.
Alongside encryption, operators must also ensure that satellites are physically secured and hardened across all its segments. Securing the terrestrial environment is done by installing defense devices and supplementary structures, such as security guards, cameras, access control systems, gates and fences. If possible, security of the ground stations should be as tight as that of military compounds.
Satellite antennas should also be protected against possible physical or electronic intrusions. This can be done by putting up barriers to the antenna. Other measures can also be put in places such as directional antennas that mitigate interception or jamming activities
Other techniques could be used for terrestrial equipment protection such as directional antennas that reduce interception, shielding and radio emission control measures to mitigate surveillance or jamming activities from third parties.
Satellites must also be “hardened” against orbital debris, meteoroids, and radiation. Deploying satellite networks with redundant components having multiple ground stations and satellites can help minimize disruption due to natural or kinetic disaster. This also means improving on the overall design of the satellites that would allow it to withstand deliberate attacks and the tough space environments. Of course, these countermeasures mean additional costs for commercial satellite fleets.
How much our telecommunications satellites are protected is highly dependent on its operators. And given their immense role in the modern life, it is just but prudent for these companies to invest in a hardened, secured satellite networks in the future.