Hacked satellite systems today are closer to reality than you might think

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SINGAPORE — The failure of air navigation systems leading to a plane collision and the disruption of mobile signals leading to a loss of communications may seem like scenes from an action movie, but these threats — which arise when satellite systems are hacked — are closer to reality than one might think, experts said.

“We see that hackers have more efficient tools… (and) the satellite system is a very attractive target for hackers as many of our activities are now based on services provided by satellites,” said Mr. Franck Perrin, head of cybersecurity platform and infrastructure for the satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space.

He said many components in satellites have now been replaced by software, making space platforms more connected to ground infrastructure and providing more opportunities for access via such systems.

Mr Perrin addressed journalists from around the world at last month’s Thales Media Day organized by French multinational Thales in Paris, France.

All it takes is a lone hacker to break into the satellite network’s ground systems, or a criminal organization with resources to attack the satellites directly, Mr Massimo Mercati, head of the European Space Agency’s security office, said at the same event.

The last known attack on a satellite network took place on February 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine. The hack has paralyzed the satellite broadband services of tens of thousands of homes across Europe, said internet service provider Viasat, which owns the satellite.

The hacker, who was not identified in Viasat’s report, had exploited a misconfiguration in a virtual private network device that is part of a ground system to gain remote access to the company’s network that powers its KA-SAT satellites and the modems of the connects customers. The intruder then sent commands to numerous modems that overwrote key data in the device’s memory and thus deactivated it. But Viasat said the satellite was not compromised.

The European Union, as well as countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, have blamed Russia for the cyberattack, Reuters reported.

At the Paris event, Thales Business Development Manager Silvia Diana said the main target of cyberattacks on satellite networks are ground systems.

If successful, the intruders can wreak havoc by sending bogus commands or uploading malicious software to various components of the compromised network.

These attacks can affect services such as TV broadcasts, Internet connections and navigation systems, as well as corrupt data sent over networks, including information about banking, military operations and scientific studies, she said.

Mr Perrin noted there were no known cases of direct hacking of satellites.

However, this does not mean that such a cyber attack will not take place, he added.

Mr Mercati said all it takes is a criminal organization with the resources and the technology to do it.

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