A newly proposed law would enhance cybersecurity for commercial satellites—a move designed to protect them from criminal hacking, which is, apparently, a real threat we need to worry about now.
The Satellite Cybersecurity Act, introduced by Senators Gary Peters (D-Michigan) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), would empower the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to develop “voluntary satellite cybersecurity recommendations” for the private sector, essentially providing a list of “best practices” for how to keep systems secure. The bill would also require the U.S. Government Accountability Office to conduct a study that looks at the ways the federal government currently supports cybersecurity for the commercial satellite industry.
“As commercial satellites become more pervasive, hackers could shut satellites down, denying access to their service or jam signals to disrupt electric grids, water networks, transportation systems, and other critical infrastructure,” reads a press release from the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which announced the bill’s introduction on Wednesday. “The senators’ legislation will ensure the United States is prepared to address these threats as hackers increasingly target commercial satellite systems.”
It makes sense that the senators would be concerned about this, since satellites currently play a big role in the America’s blossoming space industry. Indeed, over the last few years, commercial satellite launches have seen a huge spike: 2020 saw a 37 percent increase in the number of commercial launches—more than three times the amount conducted in 2019—according to an industry report published last year. As such, satellites are considered a major driver of the space industry overall, accounting for some 73 percent of the total “space business,” or hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue. With all that money on the table, it’s no surprise that private industry wants to make sure it can protect its product—something the newly introduced bill endeavors to do.
And, you might not think it, but there are actually tons of reports of satellites getting hacked. As far back as 1999, you have stuff like this controversial report that a band of cybercriminals managed to somehow take control of a British military satellite. More recently, in 2011, U.S. officials accused the Chinese government of having hacked two weather satellites operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, though China firmly denied the allegations. A similar episode involving U.S. defense contractors is alleged to have happened in 2018, also involving Chinese hackers.
A lot of these reports are unconfirmed or disputed, though experts generally agree that it’s certainly possible to hack a satellite—and can, in fact, be quite easy. One of the simplest ways to do this is to hack into the ground office that controls a satellite. After you open that door, commandeering the physical hardware in outer space can be a fairly straightforward process, according to experts.