A Cybersecurity Framework for Mitigating Risks to Satellite Systems

Cyber threats on satellite technology will persist and evolve. We need a comprehensive cybersecurity framework to protect them from attackers.

Rebecca Herold, IEEE Member

October 25, 2023

5 Min Read
Satellite in space with Earth in background
Source: Jose Luis Stephens via Alamy Stock Photos

Satellite systems play a crucial role in supporting communication, weather monitoring, navigation, Internet access, and more. However, these systems face numerous threats that compromise security and integrity. To address these challenges, we must implement a robust cybersecurity framework to protect satellite operations.

Cyber Threats to Satellites

The threats faced by satellite systems are diverse and range from denial-of-service (DoS) attacks and malware infiltration to unauthorized access and damage from other objects in their orbit that disrupt digital communications.

For satellite systems, these critical threats can corrupt sensor systems, resulting in harmful actions based on incorrect data. For example, a corrupted sensor system could change a satellite's orbit path to collide with another satellite or natural space object. If a sensor system becomes unusable, it could cause failure of other space and terrestrial systems that depend on those sensors. Jamming or sending unauthorized commands for satellite guidance and control could also damage other orbiting space vehicles.

DoS attacks can render satellites unresponsive or, even worse, shut them down. This could create physical safety risks and damage other countries' space vehicles or the ground from satellite debris fallout. Planting malware within the systems through insufficiently secured access points could impact the satellite and spread to other systems the satellite connects with.

Many of the 45,000 satellites have been operating for many years and have little (if any) built-in cybersecurity protection. Consider the Vanguard 1 (1958 Beta 2), a small solar-powered, Earth-orbiting satellite. It was launched by the United States on March 17, 1958, and is the oldest satellite still orbiting Earth.

What would a cybersecurity vulnerability analysis of that satellite reveal today? What if hackers exploit those vulnerabilities? It's possible some already have. Could they obtain sensitive data? Modify the satellite's software code? Change the controls? Perhaps newer satellites have taken hackers' attention away from the Vanguard 1. More likely, there may have been successful hacks not reported to the public.

Looking ahead, artificial intelligence's (AI) rapid adoption across industries means it is essential to validate the accuracy of any AI used within a satellite system and thoroughly test it before putting it into production.

Given the potential threats satellites face, a comprehensive cybersecurity framework is necessary to mitigate these risks. Engineering universities and tech organizations must also collaborate with government agencies and other entities engineering and building satellites to create and implement a comprehensive cybersecurity, privacy, and resilience framework to regulate the industries expanding the use of space vehicles.

A Cybersecurity Framework for Satellite Security

There are five key steps within the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) necessary to mitigate common risks, including those associated with satellite systems: identify, protect, detect, respond, and recover.

1. Identify

First, identify the satellite data, personnel, devices, systems, and facilities that enable the satellite's uses, goals, and objectives. Document where each satellite is located and all connections between each satellite component and other systems. Knowing what data is involved and how it's encrypted can assist contingency, continuity, and disaster-recovery planning. Finally, understand your risk landscape and any factors that may impact the mission so that you can prepare for and prevent potential incidents. This information will help effectively manage cybersecurity risk to satellite systems and associated components, assets, data, and capabilities.

2. Protect

Using the identified information, choose, develop, and implement the satellite's security ecosystem to most appropriately protect all of its components and associated services. Be aware that legacy space operations and vehicles typically use proprietary software and hardware not designed specifically for a highly interconnected satellite, cyber, and data ecosystem. This means legacy components may lack certain security controls. Therefore, develop, implement, and use verification measures to prevent the loss of assurance or functionality within the physical, logical, and ground segments of satellite systems and enable a response to and recovery from cybersecurity events. Securing physical and logical components, reviewing access controls, and conducting cybersecurity training are vital for protecting satellite systems.

3. Detect

Develop and deploy appropriate activities to monitor satellite systems, connections, and physical components for anomalous events and notify users and applications upon detection. Use monitoring to enable detection and employ a process for handling detected anomalies within space components. Use multiple sensors and sources to correlate events, monitor satellite information systems, and maintain access to ground segment facilities to detect potential breaches in security.

4. Respond

Contain the impact of a cybersecurity attack or irregular incident on a satellite system, ground, or digital ecosystem with appropriate actions. Cybersecurity teams should communicate the event and its impact to key stakeholders. They should also implement processes to respond to and mitigate new, known, and anticipated threats or vulnerabilities and continuously improve these processes based on lessons learned.

5. Recover

Develop and implement appropriate activities to maintain cybersecurity and resilience and restore all capabilities or services impaired due to a cybersecurity event. The goals are promptly recovering satellite systems and associated components to normal operations, returning the organization to its proper working state, and preventing the same type of event from recurring. Coordinate restoration activities with internal and external parties and include corrections for anomalies, calibrations, verification, and validation procedures.

NIST recently released NIST IR 8441: Cybersecurity Framework Profile for Hybrid Satellite Networks (HSN). NIST defines an HSN as: "an aggregation of independently owned and operated terminals, antennas, satellites, payloads, or other components that comprise a satellite system." NIST IR 8441 maps the five CSF categories above into an HSN profile. This provides a valuable resource to engineers and HSN users and provides a great example to cybersecurity practitioners and other satellite network engineers to create cybersecurity profiles for other satellite networks.

As our world continues to rely on satellite technology, cyber threats will persist and evolve. It is crucial to protect these systems by implementing a comprehensive cybersecurity framework describing how to engineer, build, and use them. Such a framework enables organizations to respond effectively to incidents, recover quickly from disruptions, and stay ahead of evolving threats.

About the Author(s)

Rebecca Herold

IEEE Member

Rebecca Herold, IEEE Member and CEO and founder of The Privacy Professor consultancy and co-founder of Privacy & Security Brainiacs, is an information security, privacy and compliance expert. With more than 25 years of experience, Herold focuses on helping organizations identify data risks and requirements to ensure data accuracy, safeguards and privacy protections. Herold has also been supporting NIST information security and privacy research and standards creation since 2009. She has authored 22 books on a variety of topics pertaining to information security, privacy, compliance and other related topics.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights