The White House issues cybersecurity principles for space (Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)The White House has published its Cybersecurity Principles for Space Systems. The short document sets out the US position when it comes to protecting any systems that are located in space.

It states: “The United States considers unfettered freedom to operate in space vital to advancing the security, economic prosperity, and scientific knowledge of the Nation.”

The US sees unfettered access to space as critical to its future. The use of digital services and technologies delivered by satellites is increasing. It ranges from TV and radio broadcasts through to military spying operations. Space is also getting increasingly cluttered with satellites and space debris.

Importantly, this latest Presidential memo restates previously announced US policy to protect space communications. In particular, the memo states: “The National Cyber Strategy of September 2018 states that my Administration will enhance efforts to protect our space assets and supporting infrastructure from evolving cyber threats, and will work with industry and international partners to strengthen the cyber resilience of existing and future space systems.”

What is this all about?

The focus is not just on military operations in space. The US is concerned about the impact of cybersecurity attacks against a range of services delivered by satellite such as global positioning systems. GPS is especially important, not just to military operations but also civilian use.

In 2017 Russia was accused of using satellite navigation spoof technology. Since then, several separate incidents have been blamed on both Russia and China. The US is also believed to have the same capability, although it has not been accused of any attacks to date.

The news also came on the same day that Starlink, the satellite Internet operation owned by Elon Musk, announced results from its latest beat. It claims that it has been able to deliver Internet speeds of 100Mbps with very low latency. It also showed high-speed, low latency, inter-satellite laser communications.

Additionally, the US has confirmed it is planning to send astronauts back to the moon in 2024. It will want to be sure that communications with its spacecraft are not affected by the actions of any other state. Additionally, satellites rely on secure space-to-ground communications to monitor, update and control satellites. Many of the satellites in orbit at the moment were launched at a time when encryption was not as advanced as today. As such, older satellites are at risk of having their communication streams hacked and being taken over. The US worries that this could allow an enemy power to use its satellites against it.

What does the White House want?

The memo states: “Cybersecurity principles and practices that apply to terrestrial systems also apply to space systems.” It has put forward a set of principles that will determine how the US protects its own space systems.

Those principles include the need for satellite developers to build in cybersecurity capable of detecting any attempt to interfere with a satellite. It requires this security to last for the lifetime of a satellite. It is a tall order and potentially unachievable. Satellites can take 24 months at the minimum from design to launch. They also have an expected life of at least 15 years. It would mean taking 2020 technology, launching it in 2022, and assuming that it was still secure by 2037. Ask anyone working in operation technology teams about their current IoT landscape. Most are unable to guarantee the security of today’s technology by 2025.

Another challenge will be encryption. The emergence of quantum computing and its likely impact on encryption schemes is well documented. NIST has still to publish a list of next-generation encryption schemas or the hardware that will be needed to run it. As such, assuming that satellite manufacturers can secure their communications 15+ years into the future is not sustainable.

Other measures include the physical protection of satellites. This is more likely, but with several governments developing satellite retrieval systems, how a satellite will defend itself without destroying itself in the process, is unclear.

One solution to all of this, for the US at least, will be the US Space Force which was announced in December 2019. However, whether it will have the capacity to protect more than US military or some highly sensitive commercial satellites is unknown.

Enterprise Times: What does this mean?

There is no question that attacks on satellite systems are very real. At present, these have been limited to spoofing and testing of offensive systems. At what point that becomes more serious and creates a threat to life or national economies is uncertain. While this memo outlines some useful principles, it is, in many ways, a restatement of previous documents.

What it does lack is any depth or content on how the various principles in section four will be achieved. At the moment, they are ambitions rather than something that can be readily achieved. Such, however, is the nature of technology. With the US planning to go back to the moon in 2024, this is likely to be part of a larger set of space race announcements.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here