Enemies may disrupt US satellites by hacking ground stations, Pentagon says

Enemies may disrupt US satellites by hacking ground stations, Pentagon says

SAN FRANCISCO — China, Russia, and other potential U.S. adversaries are showing increased interest in disrupting American space assets through cyberattacks that could cripple military communications, a top DOD cyber official said Thursday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy Mieke Eoyang said nation-state hackers are mulling disrupting space assets “at all segments,” and emphasized ground stations that transmit data to satellites and space stations are easiest to target.

“The cybersecurity of the space systems — the ways in which the information from space flows across networks to enable traffic — is something that we’re very worried about,” she told an audience at RSA Conference in San Francisco.

Ground segment space assets like mission control centers, launch facilities and other networking equipment used for relaying data are easiest to breach because defending them from intrusions often involves basic cybersecurity concepts that many other organizations don’t deploy, Eoyang said.

Those can include secure-by-design principles and multifactor authentication, she said. “We think that this is an area that’s only going to grow, and the challenge for cybersecurity that we see is that it’s going to require engineers that understand a variety of disciplines.” 

Disruptions to U.S. military’s satellites could undermine strategic military communications and critical civilian infrastructure. A former Space Force CIO in March told Politico that adversaries might upload malware into orbiting satellites and shutter their communications with devices back on Earth.

An added challenge is that most of the space environment is run by commercial operators, a dynamic that involves information-sharing between industry and the U.S. military. Those discussions often expand to overseas allies, Eoyang said.

Space cybersecurity took center stage two years ago in the early hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Kremlin hackers disabled over 40,000 KA-SAT Viasat modems used by people in Kyiv and thousands of other civilians across Europe. They transmitted a wiper malware dubbed later as Acid Rain that caused mass communications disruptions at the start of the invasion, both the company and the NSA later concluded.

Space matters came to the fore in February amid confirmed reports of Russia developing an anti-satellite nuke for in-orbit use. A Pentagon official this month told a congressional panel that a satellite detonation could render objects traveling in low-Earth orbit — a rotation around the planet that occurs in 128 minutes or less — unusable for a year.

“This capability could pose a threat to all satellites operated by countries and companies around the globe, as well as to the vital communications, scientific, meteorological, agricultural, commercial, and national security services we all depend upon,” said John Plumb, assistant defense secretary for space policy.

China is notably amassing a massive architecture of remote-sensing satellites to help target U.S. forces if they move to defend Taiwan in a conflict, a Space Force intelligence official said earlier this month.

The White House considers space to be critical infrastructure, but it officially does not have its own sector designation in a recent update that highlights key areas of the U.S. economy in need of protection against cyber threats.

Some experts made pushes to get space listed as critical infrastructure in the rewrite, arguing that space systems like GPS platforms and satellites have become key components in modern cybersecurity. Space was previously assigned to a DHS working group in 2021, involving a mix of government and industry players that advise on best practices for space infrastructure security. 

That could change in the future as national security officials like the DHS secretary reexamine the sectors, said Nick Leiserson, the Office of the National Cyber Director’s assistant director for cyber policy and programs.

At the moment, it makes more sense to “reinvigorate the cross-sector coordination that has existed but maybe hasn’t gotten the attention and focus it needs” for space, he told Nextgov/FCW after Eoyang’s panel.



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