No-one is Prepared for Space Based Cyberwarfare

Starchild still:
2001: A Space Odyssey

Spaceborne cyberwarfare is easily one of the largest issues looming on the near future horizon, and nobody is talking about it.

It doesn’t take much to imagine how big a deal this subject will end up being. When the rockets lift off in 5-10 years to start carrying astronauts on interplanetary journeys; followed soon thereafter by colonists… they won’t just have the intense vacuum of space to contend with. As if their journey isn’t already fraught with enough perils; the threat from hackers in space will easily be one of the greatest dangers to the survivability of any long term mission.

Now you might be thinking, why would anyone want to hack our brave astronauts and pioneers? Sure, from the perspective of “advancing human achievement” there aren’t many who should have such a motivation. But space isn’t just about advancing humanity. Far from it. The near future of space is highly competitive. From countries seeking to compete for military supremacy in the great beyond; to corporations looking to control the vast resources offered by asteroids; or colonies. Space is ripe for sabotage.

Hacking is the absolute perfect weapon to deploy into this environment; bar none. Through hacking, attacks can travel at the speed of light, be almost assured to hit their target, carry massive lethality, and leave next to no trace. You see, there’s something fundamentally different about spaceborne operations, when it comes to their vulnerability to such attacks.

When you’re sitting in your office on a warm day, and a malicious hacker breaks in and shuts down your HVAC, that might be an annoyance… you might even need to go get a drink of water to cool down.

But when you’re in a dome habitat on Mars… if an attacker manages to shut down the HVAC, or open a door; that means death. Complete, and total, with very high deniability.

Future space based hacks may easily be made to look like sabotage. Perhaps the HVAC system just failed. “Maybe you shouldn’t have trusted company X to ferry people to mars.”

Are you starting to see what I’m getting at?

Everything in spaceborne operations is massively reliant on the interoperability and efficacy of advanced computer systems. A virus which reads that a rocket’s fuel is slightly higher than it really is; could easily cause a crash. Or perhaps the onboard flight system simply ‘miscalculates’ a route by only a few degrees. Over a long enough trip, a few degrees deviation could easily result in the ship being lost via collision with a terrestrial body, too steep of an entry into the atmosphere (burn upon re-entry), or simply aim the ship to fly at such an angle as to veer away from its destination into the abyss, without enough fuel to return… floating for eternity.

Hacking almost any system involved in a space based operation may have lethal or mission critical results. And the probability of such hacks looking like simple ‘miscalculations’ is too high for competing entities to not attempt such attacks on each other. Imagine a company which intends to ferry citizens to mars for the creation of a colony. They would never at any point in their existence be more than one major failure away from having to abort. A rival could and almost certainly will at some point attempt to sabotage their efforts. And they need to be prepared.

Lone Gunmen of the Frontier

But there are also unique characteristics to space based information warfare operations themselves. For starters, it is presumed that most of the weapons systems will be designed and deployed from Earth, at least for now. As such the logistics of the game change. The targets may be located on earth, or elsewhere. If they’re remote, then tactics must change radically to account for greatly increased round trip times (RTT). Not only for attackers, but for the defenders as well.

Troubleshooting a vulnerability, attack, or other issue, when you have to wait half an hour just to hear back from a single request to a remote system means that people can and almost certainly will at some point die while a tech struggles to fix a malicious action.

This necessitates the need for forward deployment of cyberwarfare capable personnel for any and all long duration interplanetary missions. To be supported by development farms here on Earth. These folks will absolutely be spaceborne hacker cowboys of the final frontier. Literally living, breathing, or dying on their skills with a laptop.

And I can’t wait.

About the author

Professional hacker & security engineer. Currently at Google, opinions all my own. On Twitter as @zaeyx. Skydiver, snowboarder, writer, weightlifter, runner, energetic to the point of being a bit crazy.

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