COMMENTARY

Satellites could come under cyber siege

Aging fleet has become a prime target

Kevin Coleman ( kgcoleman@technolytics.com ) is a senior fellow at the Technolytics Institute, former chief strategist at Netscape and an adviser on cyber warfare and security.

Our nation’s defense and critical infrastructure have become more reliant on satellite systems. That increased use and dependence comes with a downside. Because satellite systems are integrated into our national security systems and emergency response systems and are critical components to a modern military, they have become an attractive target of cyberattacks. As the reliance grows, so does the threats of cyberattacks from criminals, terrorists and nations.

Business, government, emergency responders and the military continue to expand their use of space-based assets for communications and real-time remote sensing. Global revenues for the satellite industry have grown at more than double-digit percentages since 2004 and totaled $160 billion in 2009. Euroconsult, a global consulting and analysis firm that specializes in the satellite sector, estimated last year that 1,185 satellites will be built and launched from 2009-2018, an increase of about 50 percent compared to the previous decade.

So what is driving the growth? The market is expanding into new services that provide advanced communications capabilities. Several of those capabilities have combined to drive what has been described as an insatiable appetite for satellite capabilities. First is the ever-increasing demand for broadband capabilities driven by increased IP voice, data and imagery capabilities. The second significant driver for additional satellite capacity is mobile broadband or communications-on-the-move capabilities. Communications on the move has become increasingly more critical for mobile command and control capabilities, specifically during operations in remote or mountainous areas that do not have traditional communications infrastructure.

Next is the military's program to move from commercial satellite services to self-owned assets with open capacity. The open capacity will undoubtedly lower prices, which will drive satellite use by private-sector businesses, state and local government, and first responders. Growth will further be driven by new technology. One major segment of new technology will be nanosatellites. Nanosatellites are about the size of a soccer ball, weigh less than 50 pounds, are covered with solar cells and are said to be the smartest satellites ever launched. To support the new class of satellite, the Army announced the development of a multipurpose nanomissile system. This system has the smallest orbital launch vehicles ever created and whose sole purpose is launching nanosatellites for various classified missions.

Most of the satellites in orbit were designed and built before the realization that cyberattacks would become so prevalent across all electronic communications platforms. For that reason, it is easy to assess just how exposed these systems are. In 1999, a group of hackers reportedly seized control of a British Defence Ministry communications satellite, triggering a security advisory and immediate response from British intelligence and defense organizations. A few years later, hackers broke into a restricted federal computer system and stole proprietary code for controlling U.S. satellite systems. In 2006, the Bush administration warned of threats by terrorist groups and other nations against U.S. commercial and military satellites. Lately, reports of sophisticated cyberattacks on satellites have surfaced. It is commonly believed that Chinese military planners have determined the greatest weakness the U.S. military has is its reliance on computer and satellite systems. There are allegations that the Chinese sabotaged U.S. military satellites and the Russian space station.

The threat is not in the future. Cyberattacks against satellites are already here. Cyberattackers prey on those who don't protect themselves, and our aging fleet of satellites is now a prime target. This requires immediate action. The increased demand that is driving the increase in satellite systems and capabilities gives us the ability to build cybersecurity into new satellite systems rather than trying to bolt on security after the fact.

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