How cyber and electronic warfare can be used to trick your signals
By Sakari Teerekoski
Our digital infrastructure is increasingly dependent on space-based assets. Communication satellites provide internet coverage and decent bandwidth to places that are unreachable with ground-based systems. With 5G and the Internet of Things, we utilize them more and more as time passes, technology develops, and data traffic intensifies. Both the civilian sphere as well as the military are today using a multitude of satellite-based services that are of high importance in modern society, e.g. positioning, navigation and time synchronization, but also Earth observation and other types of satellite communication solutions. This is a noteworthy increase in space-based infrastructure, which has directed new security-political interests towards space.
I shall here focus on man-made security threats towards the information transmitted via satellites, but let it not go unsaid that there are plenty of security threats to the satellites themselves out there in orbit too. Thousands of space debris objects pose collision risks to our satellites and, if impact happens, can cause much worse consequences than what interference with satellite signals can bring about.
Meddling with signals
Imagine a situation where you are reliant on satellite data and where this data and its accuracy are of critical importance. Then imagine an adversary who would wish to feed you false information so you do not get the correct data, leading you to make misinformed strategic decisions. This could be a fast-paced scene of battle in a conflict, or it could be a self-driving car making its way through city traffic. Protecting and securing the information that one is reliant on in that kind of situation is what has driven the creation of space forces in several countries in the past years. The adversaries have two ways to try to achieve their goals. One is to hack the transmitter of the signal directly and introduce false information to be transmitted already at the source or, alternatively, to put up a separate fake transmitter altogether. Another way is to interfere with the signal as it passes from transmitter to receiver (to/from satellites, or via satellites if both these are ground-based). This latter method is called spoofing and essentially means that the adversary has managed to alter the signal so that the receiver will get a different signal than what the transmitter sent. A communication signal is an electromagnetic wave, which the spoofer interferes with by beaming at it with another electromagnetic wave.
Who would do such a thing?
In 2019, it was reported that China has already made use of GPS signal spoofing, at least for technical demonstration purposes. Satellite signal interference from a disturbance source in the port of Shanghai had made signals from ships in the port show completely wrong locations. GPS data had shown a group of ships that seemed to be placed tightly together in a circular configuration, all located on land in a nearby oil terminal area, i.e. clearly off their real position since the ships were at the time in the water. This incident was interpreted as a spoofing drill by the Chinese, meaning that if they wished to feed GPS receivers with false information about their naval ships, they would have the means to do so. It is believed that North Korea also uses similar technology to hide smuggling activities.
It is easily understood that such a move could have notable consequences in a military situation, but there is the threat to civilian digital infrastructure as well. If the above scenario would be applied to ourself-driving car example above, the car, when getting false information about its own position and speed, could cause severe damage when driving through crowded city streets.
Iran has, in fact, claimed the ability to spoof the GPS receivers of American drones. Russia has also been accused of spoofing signals from aircraft in the Arctic, and it has been suggested that spoofing devices are sometimes used in convoys transporting President Putin.
Awareness is the first step
It is only recently that space security has entered the mainstream agenda in European security discussions, and it is still a topic that needs more awareness-raising for a strategy for how to handle it to emerge. Indeed, this discussion needs to intensify as space-based communication infrastructure becomes an increasingly important part of our lives. When planning for the defence of the future, there needs to be awareness about potential adversaries developing cyber and spoofing threats to harm communication assets in critical situations. The signal interference threat is increasingly agenda-setting when countries develop space forces as (sub-)branches of their military and will continue to be so as other emerging technologies that in turn are reliant on satellite data enter the defence ecosystem. In the long run, when awareness is more established, international agreements could be made to deter the utilization of such means, at least against civilian infrastructure.