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Vulnerable in Space: How Satellites Are Attracting Cyber Attacks

The cybersecurity of many satellites would be very poor, according to a recent study.

Vulnerable in Space: How Satellites Are Attracting Cyber Attacks
Pedro Domínguez Rojas

Pedro Domínguez Rojas

The Earth is completely surrounded by thousands of satellites of all kinds. From communication and research to espionage, the number of satellites keeps increasing. Besides contributing to the accumulation of space debris when they become obsolete, satellites also have another added problem: cybersecurity.

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A study led by Johannes Willbold, a doctoral student at the Ruhr University Bochum (Germany), has recently uncovered a series of vulnerabilities and basic security issues in three research satellites.

The research claims that the space sector is nearly 10 years behind in terms of security, and the identified problems could be exploited by cybercriminals to hack and take control of these satellites, potentially causing collisions and triggering a chain reaction of serious consequences.

The researchers were able to analyze the ESTCube-1, OPS-SAT, and Flying Laptop satellites, dedicated to research purposes. After thorough investigation, they found up to 6 different vulnerabilities in the three satellites and a total of 13 distinct vulnerabilities.

OPS-SAT satellite – European Space Agency

In addition to finding that the satellites lacked basic encryption to protect themselves, a series of surveys conducted with engineers and developers of these space devices revealed that professionals took no measures to prevent third-party access, posing a dangerous possibility for someone to potentially hack a satellite and control it freely.

In their report, the researchers assert that the deeply secretive nature of satellite security makes this one of the first real demonstrations of how attackers could exploit vulnerabilities to take control of satellites.

The research details that space companies prefer to create satellites that function, even if it means sacrificing the security of the devices. Furthermore, the researchers claim that these companies try to “achieve security through obscurity,” focusing all their efforts on preventing anyone (including academics) from investigating their systems.

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Indeed, due to this very reason, it is unknown whether these vulnerabilities also exist in other satellites or if there are different issues in other models. With the increasing number of satellites in orbit, including Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, the risk of a hack that could affect hundreds of satellites and critical telecommunications systems is growing.

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Pedro Domínguez Rojas

Pedro Domínguez Rojas

Publicist and audiovisual producer in love with social networks. I spend more time thinking about which videogames I will play than playing them.

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