Over the past years, the Pentagon has become increasingly reliant on satellites to provide missile defense, secure communications, reconnaissance and global positioning systems. But those system are vulnerable to attack—not just by missiles that could knock them out but by an array of other means, including cyber attacks.
“Cyberthreats happen all the time, not just from China but also from non-state actors,” a senior administration official, not authorized to speak publicly told reporters. “So we need to secure our systems against a wide, wide range of potential threats. The threats are only getting more serious.”
The policy, however, lays out a series of broad principles — but not enforceable regulations — that encourage satellite operators to better harden their systems, in space and on the ground, against attacks and to abide by best practices. In many cases, the practices, such as encrypting satellite to ground links, are already in use.
But the policy highlights a vulnerability space and national security experts have been warning about for years. And it gives the issue the weight of the White House, which cast the measure as a broader attempt to combat cyberattacks, at a time when hackers are threatening to disrupt many facets of life.
In a report issued last year, the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, said that the “vulnerability of satellites and other space assets to cyberattack is often overlooked in wider discussions of cyber threats to critical national infrastructure.”
It said that generally “spacecraft have been considered relatively safe from cyber intrusions; however, recent emerging threats have brought spacecraft into play as a direct target of an adversary.”
In 2014, for example, American officials said China hacked a NOAA weather satellite. The hack only had a limited impact on its weather forecasts. But it showed how vulnerable the system was and how another nation could take advantage of it.
Like cyberattacks on the ground, hacks of satellites can have significant consequences, even allowing an adversary to seize control of a satellite, according to a report released earlier this year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“A cyberattack on space systems can result in data loss, widespread disruptions, and even permanent loss of a satellite,” the report said.
In addition to national security, commerce and everyday life in the United States has become bound to space — from weather forecasts, to television, as well as the little blue GPS dot on many people’s phones that tracks their location as they navigate through a city. And so the White House said it needed to act.
“From communications to weather monitoring, Americans rely on capabilities provided by space systems in everyday life,” Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a statement. “President Trump’s directive ensures the U.S. Government promotes practices to protect American space systems and capabilities from cyber vulnerabilities and malicious threats.”