Hackers to target US satellite in security test

The US air force is planning a contest to highlight security vulnerabilities

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket carrying a spy satellite for the US military lifts off. AP
A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket carrying a spy satellite for the US military lifts off. AP

The United States is offering hackers the chance to take over an orbiting satellite to try to identify weaknesses that could be exploited by hostile states.

The offer came after a similar event at a hackers’ conference in August revealed a host of security loopholes in the data systems of its F-15 fighter jet.

Hackers will be challenged to break into a satellite’s security systems and move an earth-facing camera to one that is focused on the moon, tech site wired.com reported.

The US air force will invite submissions and those behind the best ideas will be invited to hacker conference Defcon in Las Vegas in 2020 for a live contest – but only after they have been security vetted.

“If you want to get into a satellite, you can either go through the ground station or you can try to find a way into the satellite directly,” Dr Will Roper, a senior technology official at the US air force, told the website.

“But what they’re going to do is try to take over the satellite by any means they find.”

Dr Roper blamed cybersecurity weaknesses in its systems after decades of failing to recognise the extent of the dangers from hostile hackers from countries such as Russia, China and North Korea, according to the Washington Post.

The US air force confirmed plans for the contest but declined to comment further.

US officials say that any future conflict against a major power would be fought partially fought in space, because of the importance of battlefield information supplied by satellites.

The US has 340 military and government satellites in orbit around the Earth, according to an independent database, with experts predicting geopolitical tensions are increasingly likely to be played out in space.

Donald Trump last month announced a new space defence command because of concerns that its satellites were being targeted. Satellites are key cogs in national defence systems, supplying the coordinates for aiming weapons, identifying targets and improving communications on the battlefield.

“We no longer have the luxury of operating in a peaceful, benign domain,” the head of the new command General Jay Raymond told lawmakers in Washington in June.

A senior British defence official told The National last week that near misses in space between satellites were a daily occurrence amid suspicions that rival nations were trying to jam their signals.

The world’s largest defence fair in London heard that rival nations and non-state groups without the funds to build their own satellites could use laser weaponry to disrupt satellite operations.

The US is responsible for nearly half of the 2,062 operating satellites in space, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nearly 50 countries own satellites including the US’s geopolitical rival, China, which has nearly 300.

American intelligence officials believe that China and Russia are training and equipping “military space forces” and building new anti-satellite weapons to challenge US space supremacy.

Both countries “view the capability to attack space services as a part of their broader efforts to deter an adversary from, or defeat one, in combat”, according to 2019 US threat assessment.

The devastating effect of losing communications during a global conflict could see satellites targeted early in any conflict, experts have warned.

Published: September 18, 2019 04:56 PM


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