‘Security through obscurity’ no longer true for satellites in space

25 Feb 2019

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The University of Surrey has partnered with a cybersecurity firm to research how to stop a glut of new satellites from being hacked.

With so much of our planet’s technology reliant on the satellites that travel above our heads every day, it is more vital than ever that engineers and coders ensure what is sent into orbit cannot be taken down with a string of code.

To that end, the University of Surrey has announced a partnership with cybersecurity firm NCC Group to begin high-impact research to improve the understanding of current and future security challenges facing the space industry. In its announcement, the university said that the satellite industry has, to some extent, relied upon ‘security through obscurity’.

This is because as more and more players gain the ability to launch satellites into orbit – such as cube satellites (cubesats) – the technology on board is often off-the-shelf and uses operating systems that are frequently on the end of major security breaches.

Under the partnership, a PhD student will be recruited to focus on the implications of these commercial components in satellites and aerospace. The NCC Group will be providing support to the student throughout the sponsorship, as well as actively engaging on projects to better understand how these vulnerabilities have evolved.

“With smallsats and nanosatellites becoming commonplace, and the typical launch and regulatory barriers shifting, more commercial missions are being launched in low-Earth orbit,” said Dr Chris Bridges, a senior lecturer at the Surrey Space Centre based at the university.

“Understanding the risks to these important assets and how they are managed is critical for ensuring the security of future infrastructure.”

Agreeing with this was Andy Davis, the NCC Group’s transport assurance practice director, who said: “From GPS navigation and global data communication, to weather forecasting and connecting international phone calls, satellites are pivotal to our everyday lives, yet many people don’t realise this.

“Cybersecurity research in this field is urgently required and establishing this centre of excellence will help further increase knowledge about the potential threats facing emerging space assets.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic