Cyberattacks in Space? The “Next Frontier” for Cybersecurity

The Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group seeks to fill in key gaps within space-cybersecurity discussions
A report by the Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group explores future scenarios that could impact cybersecurity from space, including ways to combat threats

A new report has imagined what the future of cyberattacks could look like - but from space. 

Ranging from ransomware to faking alien life, the Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group examines the increasing threat of digital warfare on space systems. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the report is a world-first in providing a scenario-based framework for ‘space cyberattacks’, to help organisations and governments effectively plan to avoid future conflict.

“Outer space is the next frontier for cybersecurity,” the report says. “To guard against space cyberattacks, we need to understand and anticipate them, and imagination is at the very heart of both cybersecurity and frontiers.”

It continues: “Hackers are already thinking very creatively and our project applies structure to the dark art of anticipating those cyber threats—a method to the madness. This helps defenders to avoid tunnel-vision and stay ahead of would-be attackers.”

How cyberattacks could work in space

Our world now depends on the power of space satellites. These space capabilities ensure that we can use GPS, which impacts making phone calls and getting the precise time on smartphones, in addition to things like coordinating truck fleets and Earth-observation data like the weather, animal populations, natural disasters, land and water use and surveilling troop movements.

As these services are critical, cyberattacks on space infrastructure have the potential to be severe. Types of attacks could include malware installation, ransomware attacks and data or system breaches. The scale of these attacks could disrupt communications, supply chains and internet access.

Likewise, economic and national security would be at serious risk.

With this in mind, the project by the Ethics & Emerging Sciences Group seeks to fill in key gaps within space cybersecurity discussions. With the project’s ICARUS matrix - an acronym for “Imagining Cyberattacks to Anticipate Risks Unique to Space” - more than four million unique scenarios can be generated and consider a much wider range of threats.

The ICARUS matrix also captures the diversity of threat actors, their motivations, their victims and the space capabilities affected. These help to establish the core elements of a full scenario and answer the who, what, where, when, why and how questions.

“Hackers are already thinking very creatively, and our project applies structure to the dark art of anticipating those cyber threats - a method to the madness. This helps defenders to avoid tunnel-vision and stay ahead of would-be attackers,” explains Patrick Lin, the project’s principal investigator and Director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group.

Moving forward: Navigating possible regulatory landscapes

The report offers a starting list of 42 novel, but plausible, scenarios to get researchers to start considering the impact space cyberattacks could have. They range from the near-term to the distant future.

Some of the scenarios include:
  • Insider threats
  • AI vulnerabilities
  • False-flag attacks
  • Eco-terrorism
  • Ransomware during a launch
  • Faked evidence of alien life
  • Hacked 3D printers that create built-to-fail parts
  • Asteroid mining
  • Martian settlements
  • Space pirates

The report comes in the wake of Russia hacking satellite-internet equipment of Viasat in 2022 prior to invading Ukraine to disrupt communications and create confusion. 

According to Reuters, the prospect of satellite collisions and space warfare have sparked urgent calls from space advocates and lawyers to have countries establish international mechanisms of managing space traffic - which does not currently exist.

As the global threat landscape shifts towards greater levels of digital warfare, the Ethics & Emerging Sciences group suggests that cyberattacks would be the dominant form of space conflict in the future. To mitigate this, the report advocates for its scenarios to be widely available to proactively consider the reality of future cyberattacks.

There is room for future regulation, with calls for more modern updates to space law having already taken place. The report suggests that policy researchers have a role to play in filling legal gaps that could lead to space conflicts, including developing responses to prevent tensions from escalating. 

“With a wider range of novel and surprising scenarios, this report seeks to help attract and inspire more researchers, technologists, policy professionals, and the broader public to engage with the problem of space cyberattacks,” the report remarks. “We are all stakeholders and potential victims.”

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