Expert warns of major cyberthreat posed by satellite hacking

Expert warns of major cyberthreat posed by satellite hacking
Ryou Jae-cheol, middle, a professor in the Department of Computer Science & Computer Engineering at Chungnam National University, is delivering a speech at the 8th Cyber National Strategy Forum on Wednesday. Photo by Kuksung Nam, The Readable

By Kuksung Nam, The Readable
Mar. 13, 2024 9:50PM GMT+9

On Wednesday, a cybersecurity expert issued a warning that South Korea must increase its vigilance against potential hacking attempts on satellites, highlighting the significant threat these attacks represent to national security.

Ryou Jae-cheol, a professor at the Department of Computer Science & Computer Engineering at Chungnam National University, delivered a speech at the 8th annual Cyber National Security Forum in Seoul, hosted by the Korean Association of Cybersecurity Studies (KACS). During his talk, Ryou explored various hacking techniques capable of jeopardizing satellite operations. He highlighted that, in the most severe cases, these tactics have the potential to enable attackers to seize full control of satellites.

Ryou used the example of drone hacking to illustrate workable malicious tactics and their consequences to satellite security. He explained that bad actors are able to redirect a drone by exploiting the communication channels that occur between an unmanned aerial vehicle and its controller. In addition, a drone can be interfered with directly by targeting the source of its communications: the controller itself. While high-level skills are required to penetrate the satellite’s communication channels, Ryou pointed out that hackers could gain access to the ground station—which acts as the satellite’s controller—using less complex techniques.

Despite the gravity of the threat, the expert highlighted a significant oversight in security measures. “As satellites are vulnerable to cyberattacks, we need to discuss and implement countermeasures to protect them,” Ryou stated. “However, there appears to be a widespread underestimation of the risk that satellites could be targeted.” He attributed this oversight to the misconception that satellites are inherently secure, primarily due to the belief in the effectiveness of encryption and the assumption that ground stations, being part of a closed network with limited exposure to the satellite design software, are sufficiently protected.

Ryou emphasized the crucial need for robust security awareness as cybercriminals continue to breach defensive measures. He pointed out that South Korea is as vulnerable to such threats as any other nation, referencing a case disclosed by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) last January. In this incident, an alleged Chinese hacker was reported to have intercepted and analyzed the communication signals of a South Korean satellite. According to the findings, the hacker successfully accessed the control system of the satellite network without authorization last year and attempted to breach the government’s administrative network. The intelligence agency noted, however, that no direct damage occurred thanks to early detection and a prompt response.

“The safety of our satellites is not an issue confined to other countries,” Ryou remarked. “We must quickly recognize and address the seriousness of the situation.” To enhance security awareness across both public and private sectors, the expert suggested several initiatives, including organizing satellite hacking competitions and conducting cyberattack simulations on satellites that have completed their missions in outer space. Moreover, he emphasized the importance of establishing a comprehensive cybersecurity framework and integrating security measures from the initial stages of satellite design.

This article was copyedited by Arthur Gregory Willers.

Kuksung Nam is a journalist for The Readable. She has extensively traversed the globe to cover the latest stories on the cyber threat landscape and has been producing in-depth stories on security and privacy by engaging with industry giants, foreign government officials and experts. Before joining The Readable, Kuksung reported on politics for one of South Korea’s top-five local newspapers, The Kyeongin Ilbo. Her journalistic skills and reportage earned her the coveted Journalists Association of Korea award in 2021 for her essay detailing exclusive stories about the misconduct of a former government official. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in French from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, a testament to her linguistic capabilities.