Data traveling through space could become priority target for cybercriminals

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Andrey Armyagov)

As we've entered a new era of space exploration where commercial companies such as Elon Musk's Space X and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, along with smaller companies, have begun to launch satellites into orbit, a new report from the cybersecurity company McAfee warns that space may be the next frontier for cybercriminals.

In a recently published technical research paper, the firm's Advanced Threat Research team in collaboration with Cork Institute of Technology, Blackrock Castle Observatory and the National Space Center in Cork, Ireland, have outlined the threats posed to space 4.0.

According to the European Space Agency, space 4.0 represents the evolution of the space sector into a new era where governments and private sector businesses are working together with an increased number of diverse space actors around the world to launch small satellites and make commercial space travel a reality.

Up until now, cyberattacks in space have been fairly infrequent though the extent of these attacks is not known due to the fact the majority of the industry is operated by government agencies. However, with the proliferation of small satellites currently being launched into orbit by commercial companies, there will likely be an uptick in the number of publicly known cyberattacks in space.

Taking a cybersecurity approach to space

In a blog post outlining the findings from their technical research paper, McAfee's Eoin Carroll and Christiaan Beek explained why space security should adopt a cybersecurity approach, saying:

“Space security has typically been analyzed from the perspective of ground segment, communications or datalink and space segment. Additionally, the attack classes have been categorized as electronic (jamming), eavesdropping, hijacking and control. We need to think about Space 4.0 with a cybersecurity approach due to the increased connectivity and data, as opposed to the traditional approach of ground, communication and space segments. Cybercriminals will target the data and systems as opposed to the RF transmission layer.”

The research team also likened the emerging Space 4.0 industry to the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) where hardware makers brought a number of new devices to market without proper security protections in place. This has led IoT devices to become a popular target for cybercriminals and if the space industry isn't careful, the same thing could happen to satellites and other devices as well.

McAfee's Advanced Threat Research team believes that now is the time for the space industry to take steps to secure their devices or risk repeating the mistakes of the IoT where “the rush to adopt new and faster technology resulted in large scale deployment of insecure hardware and software”.

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Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.