Opinion: A hackers mind and the space race

In the first half of 2022, a recorded 72 rocket launches took 1022 spacecraft into orbit – that’s more spacecraft in orbit than were launched in the first 52 years of the space age, according to the Space Foundation. Picture: nature.discoveryplace.org

It’s that time of the year when family and friends meet up and especially with the pandemic this may not have occurred for some time.

I attended a wedding last weekend and it was sublime!

No other words to describe it (Bravo Anthony/Chung families and Co).

I hope this holiday season is good for you too.

We know that complexity is the worst enemy of security, because it makes attack easier and defence harder.

This becomes catastrophic as the effects of that attack become greater.

In A Hacker’s Mind (coming in February 2023), the author writes: “Our societal systems, in general, may have grown fairer and more just over the centuries, but progress isn’t linear or equitable. The trajectory may appear to be upwards when viewed in hindsight, but from a more granular point of view there are a lot of ups and downs.”

It’s a “noisy” process.

Technology just changes the amplitude of the noise and perhaps confuses.

Those near-term ups and downs are getting more severe.

And while that might not affect the long-term trajectories, they drastically affect all of us living in the short term.

This is how the twentieth century could – statistically – both be the most peaceful in human history and also contain the most deadly wars.

Ignoring this noise was only possible when the damage wasn’t potentially fatal on a global scale; that is, if a world war (one where multiple nations are involved) didn’t have the potential to kill everybody or destroy society, or occur in places and to people that the West wasn’t especially worried about.

We can’t be sure of that anymore.

The risks we face today are existential in a way they never have been before.

The magnifying effects of technology enable short-term damage to cause long-term planet-wide systemic damage.

Climate change has been recognised as a serious concern and matter of national security, but have we left it too late?

We’ve lived for half a century under the potential spectre of nuclear war and the life-ending catastrophe that could have been.

Fast global travel allowed local outbreaks to quickly become the COVID-19 pandemic, costing millions of lives and billions of dollars while increasing political and social instability.

Our rapid, technologically enabled changes to the atmosphere, compounded through feedback loops and tipping points, may make Earth much less hospitable for the coming centuries.

We suddenly realised that globalisation with its supply chains, where cost is primary may not be such a good thing.

Especially where these nations become not politically friendly.

Today, individual hacking decisions can have planet-wide effects.

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson once described the fundamental problem with humanity is that “we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology”.

Technology could easily get to the point where the effects of a successful attack could be existential.

Think biotech, nanotech, global climate change, maybe someday cyberattack – everything that people like Nick Bostrom study.

In these areas, like everywhere else in past and present society, the technologies of attack develop faster the technologies of defending against attack.

But suddenly, our inability to be proactive becomes fatal.

As the noise due to technological power increases, we reach a threshold where a small group of people can irrecoverably destroy the species.

The six-sigma guy can ruin it for everyone.

And if they can, sooner or later they will.

It’s possible that I have just explained the Fermi paradox!

Hey, after a few sleepy decades, space is making a comeback.

In the first half of 2022, a recorded 72 rocket launches took 1022 spacecraft into orbit – that’s more spacecraft in orbit than were launched in the first 52 years of the space age, according to the Space Foundation.

Meanwhile, the global space economy hit $469 billion in 2021, growing almost 10 per cent from 2020.

This decade’s space race was sparked, in part, by ambitious new NASA programs, launched after years of preparation.

Obviously commercial programs by some of the world’s largest entrepreneurs have also spiked this interest.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has transformed the satellite industry and developed ground breaking, reusable rockets.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is one of the principal partners leading the development of the ‘Orbital Reef’ – a commercially owned and operated space station that, by thGPSe end of the decade, aims to provide accommodations for business, research and space tourism.

Then there’s Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson, which is developing a commercial spaceflight business that will carry well-heeled
customers on a 90-minute journey to micro-gravity and back.

The company says its commercial missions are expected to start in the first quarter of 2023.

While the new space economy is in its early stages, we already have an idea of some of the innovations it will spur.

For instance, 3D printing and additive manufacturing will be critical for building infrastructure in space.

Robots and autonomous tools will be necessary to search for and gather resources in space.

A growing space economy means space will literally be more crowded.

While space may be infinite, the areas in which mankind operates are not.

The huge number of satellites launching into space creates an increased risk for collisions.

A collision could have catastrophic effects, given our growing dependence on satellite-based services, as well as the potential for space
debris to crash down on Earth.

Then, of course, as we set our sights on the next century of space exploration, humanity will be challenged to push innovation to its limits.

‘What has the space age ever done for me?’ you might ask.

But from telecommunications to GPS and providing accessible internet connections for millions of people around the world, satellites and the space-based services that they provide are crucial to how we operate as a modern society.

Especially for us here in the Pacific region.

But just because they are in orbit, that doesn’t mean satellites are out of reach of attack: security is an ongoing concern and one that is likely to grow.

One common problem is attackers targeting the service rather than the satellites themselves.

This year has seen jamming, GPS spoofing, and other cyberattacks launched against ViaSat and Starlink internet services in Ukraine – attacks that have coincided with Russia’s invasion of the country.

Western intelligence agencies attributed the attacks to Russia, and the country has been accused of using these techniques for a number of years.

Anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) might sound like something from a Bond movie, but they are real, if limited in scope.

As a University of Oxford research paper on cybersecurity of satellites points out, “Space is difficult” – only nine countries (10 if you include the European Union) – have orbital space capabilities.

Even then, “a launch program alone does not guarantee the resources and precision required to operate a meaningful ASAT capability”.

But nations that do have ASAT capability are increasingly using these technologies to flex their muscles, even using live tests to destroy actual satellites.

While no military has launched a missile at the satellite of another country, the way a number of different countries have demonstrated its potential – including the US – means that such attacks against satellites can’t be discounted in a future conflict.

While doubtless an effective strategy, using a missile to blow up a satellite is very much a blunt approach. But using electronic warfare and cyberattacks could provide an attacker with an option that could be just as debilitating.

A successful cyberattack against a satellite could have significant consequences.

Blocking communications with the satellite could shut off vital communications and services for millions of people on the ground, for
example.

A cyberattack could even alter the course of a satellite in an attempt to disrupt or even permanently damage it.

But while there could be rules and conventions that restrict governments from conducting full-scale cyberattacks against satellites run by other nations in space (without agreed international conventions I believe it’s similar to the Law of the Sea), the war in Ukraine shows that disrupting satellite communications is far from off the table.

Satellites aren’t built to last forever, but they can be in orbit for a decade or even longer, which means – along with the often lengthy timescales of satellite and space programs – that many satellites might be using ageing technology.

And once a satellite has been launched into space, its difficult – even impossible – to upgrade the computer systems that power it.

Think about how applying security updates to regular systems on Earth continues to be a major cybersecurity challenge, and then factor in the challenges of facing that issue if the systems are inaccessible.

That situation means that, if a cybersecurity vulnerability emerges, it could be there for the entire life of the satellite.

And as space-connected technology becomes even more integrated into all our lives that could be a problem if malicious cyber attackers find ways to disrupt or tamper with services.

It warned that the use of old IT equipment, the failure to update software with patches for removing known vulnerabilities, leaving potential
weaknesses in supply chains and other factors are leaving satellite systems open to attack.

And as we look to the future, manufacturers of products ranging from cars to household appliances are learning that cybersecurity is something that needs to be part of the building process from the start, because that’s the best way to ensure its resilience against cyberattacks.

While the prospect of cyberattacks against a satellite might appear to be unlikely in the very near future, anything that’s built with IoT connectivity can be accessed via the internet – and that could potentially include satellites.

Having that in mind long before anything is launched into space is going to be key for the future.

As someone observed: ‘A satellite has no conscience’.

I’d like to add, neither do drones.

More great World Cup soccer action this weekend and good luck with your teams!

As always, God bless and stay safe in both digital and physical worlds.

• ILAITIA B. TUISAWAU is a private cybersecurity consultant. The views expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by this newspaper. Mr Tuisawau can be contacted on ilaitia@ cyberbati.com

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