Cybercrime in Space: How Secure Are Satellites?

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Cybercrime in Space: How Secure Are Satellites?

Unlike their military counterparts, civilian GNSS systems are vulnerable to jamming and spoofing. Cybercrime in Space must change.

by Tim Cole

Although there is a deep ending reliance on using a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) to give position and time data, these systems are increasingly vulnerable to signal disruption. Nation states and some non-state actors have developed or acquired sophisticated highpower jammers, with signal emissions frequently registered in Syria, Eastern Ukraine, and North Korea. In April 2013, navigation systems of South Korean aircraft and mobile telephone networks in the South Korean capital Seoul were severely disrupted by a 50-watt jamming system apparently transmitting from North Korea.

Weapons still receive the lion’s share of money for research and development.
Miriam Pemberton, Institute for Policy Studies


Due to their orbits at over 2,000 kilometers above the Earth, navigation satellites are particularly vulnerable to jamming. Signals are relatively weak compared to most other commercial radio signals, which usually travel only tens or sometimes a few hundred kilometers. Cheap and simple jammers that can interfere with commercial applications are widely available.

Cybercrime in Space - Well-Funded and Protected

Well-Funded and Protected: While military-grade GNSS are immune to attack, civilian systems rely on weak encryption – or lack any kind at all.

Even more sinister are spoofing devices that compromise true GNSS data and can manipulate the positional and timing information sent to receivers. While jamming simply blocks navigation devices from receiving any signal at all, spoofers have the potential to sway decision making and actions by generating false positioning and timing. GPS anomalies around Russia’s president Vladimir Putin have led researchers to believe that Russian authorities use spoofing to disguise where he is located.
While military-grade GNSS systems such as the encrypted version of P (Precise) code, known as P(Y), in GPS are immune to such attacks (or so the generals and fleet admirals believe), most civilian applications rely on weak encryption – or lack any kind at all. Galileo’s Open GNSS and its Commercial Services are more or less unprotected, but its Public Regulated Service (PRS) is an encrypted navigation service for government-authorized users and sensitive applications that require high continuity, similar to the military version of GPS.
US authorities are even worried about the use of rapid-transit railway rolling stock built in China and equipped with their GNSS systems. In an article published by the Washington Post, an unnamed official warned that the passenger cars could be full of software back doors or be programmed by the manufacturers to send pictures back to China from on-board surveillance cameras. At the same time, they worry that hackers could access the software and take control of the trains themselves, causing crashes or huge delays during rush hours. The railcar dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that manufacturing of rolling stock in North America has been in decline for decades, and operators are increasingly dependent on countries like China and India to fulfil demand.

Cybercrime in Space: Lack of Coherent Policy

In a memorandum for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington based think tank, research fellow Miriam Pemberton claims that the decline is due to the lack of a coherent industrial policy in the United States. For the past 80 years industrial production has focused on the needs of the armed forces, she maintains. “Military production is the realm of the arms industry and almost completely financed by the government. This means that weapons receive the lion’s share of money for research and development.” Part of the concern about Chinese manufacturers is the alleged Huawei threat, which has already caused the United States, Australia, and New Zealand to exclude the Chinese developer and chip manufacturer from bidding on the next gen mobile phone standard 5G in those countries without offering any proof of wrongdoing. US spy agencies have also warned against using products from Huawei’s competitor ZTE and the use of the popular camera drones made by DJI (DaJiang Innovations), another Chinese company.

Europe chips in

Businesses are jockeying for position in the race to supply the components for Galileo.

With the declaration of its Initial Services, Galileo is moving from a global satellite navigation system in testing to a live, operational service. For the first time, European satellites are providing users with global positioning, navigation, and timing information. In the lead-up to Initial Services many forward-looking companies created Galileo-enabled receivers, chipsets, and modules – many of which are already available on the market. Today, more than 30 companies produce Galileo-ready chips and, in the smartphone market, there are more than 20 manufacturers that have already started to produce Galileo enabled models. These companies include key chipset manufacturers like U-blox, Broadcom, Mediatek, and Intel. STMicroelectronics, a leading European chipset manufacturer in the automotive sector, has also started releasing its Teseo Galileo-ready range for vehicle telematics and navigation systems. Most notably, Qualcomm, a market leader for smartphone chips, such as its Snapdragon, has already built Galileo into its devices, meaning that many smartphones are inherently Galileo-ready. In the consumer market, over 140 smartphone models from manufacturers including Apple, Asus, BlackBerry, BQ, Google, Huawei, Xiaomi, LG, Samsung, and Sony have Galileo compatibility. As of March 2018, Galileo has been included in every new type-approved vehicle sold in Europe, thereby enabling the eCall emergency response system.

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