A cyber attack impacted the international satellite Internet and TV provider Viasat. The attack disrupted services on February 24, coinciding with Russian forces’ assaults on Ukrainian cities. Although as of this writing the full extent of the attack has not been quantified, initial evidence shows that Internet service was cut off for thousands of customers in Europe. Per an ongoing joint effort of French, Ukraine, and U.S. intelligence, the attack successfully disabled modems to the extent that they could not be turned on, and would need to be reprogrammed, or in some cases, replaced. Current belief is that malware had allowed the attackers, who had likely already gained access into Viasat networks, to purposefully manipulate the modems. Despite the conflict in Ukraine and the impact that resulted, the joint intelligence effort has not attributed the attack to Russian state actors. On March 17, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an alert advocating the strengthening of SATCOM network provider cybersecurity, no doubt in response to revelations of the Viasat incident. The cyber threat to satellites has been a longstanding concern, and one that has unfortunately got mixed in with the myriad other cybersecurity issues facing the global community. As a result, it’s not surprising that satellite security has gotten lost in the shuffle, particularly given the need to prioritize and safeguard 16 critical infrastructure sectors. Complicating matters, the architecture of the satellite system allows for various potential entry points for cyber attackers. According to one research paper on the subject, space craft, ground stations, and uplinks/downlinks were susceptible to cyber attacks. Space craft could be vulnerable to command intrusions and denial-of-service attacks. Ground stations offered several entry points for would-be attackers. And finally, the uplinks/downlinks for satellites were accessible especially if they transmitted via open telecommunications channels. Compounding the problem are the Internet of Things devices involved in satellite communications that could provide several other possible points of entry for savvy attackers. As of 2021, according to one geospatial source, there were approximately 6,600 satellites orbiting the earth (though another source has a higher number) with 3,400 of them being active. This number keeps increasing with more launches conducted each year. These satellites provide a range of functionality to include but not limited to earth observation, technology development and demonstration, navigation and positioning, space science and observation, earth science, and “other” purposes, likely referring to those supporting intelligence activities (as many as 2,200 communications satellites are in orbit). Of the more than two-thirds of the countries that have launched them, the United States ranks first in satellites put into space, followed by Russia and China.
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