Securing Space 4.0 – One Small Step or a Giant Leap? Part 2

By and on Sep 30, 2020

McAfee Advanced Threat Research (ATR) is collaborating with Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and its Blackrock Castle Observatory (BCO) and the National Space Center in Cork, Ireland

In the first of this two-part blog series we introduced Space 4.0, its data value and how it looks set to become the next battleground in the defense against cybercriminals. In part two we discuss the architectural components of Space 4.0 to threat model the ecosystem from a cybersecurity perspective and understand what we must do to secure Space 4.0 moving forward.

Nanosats: Remote Computers in Space

A satellite is composed of a payload and a bus. The payload is the hardware and software required for the mission or satellite’s specific function, such as imaging equipment for surveillance. The bus consists of the infrastructure or platform that houses the payload, such as thermal regulation and command and control. Small satellites are space craft typically weighing less than 180 kilograms and, within that class of satellites, is what we call nanosatellites or nanosats which typically weigh between 1-10 kilograms. Cubesats are a class of nanosat so you will often hear the term used interchangeably, and for the context of Space 4.0 security, we can assume they are the same device. Nanosats significantly reduce launch costs due to their small size and the fact that many of these devices can be mounted on board a larger single satellite for launch.

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) Cubesats typically use free open source software such as FreeRTOS or KubOS for the on-board operating system. However, other systems are possible, with drivers available for most of the hardware on Linux and Windows OS. KubOS is an open source flight software framework for satellites and has cloud-based mission control software, Major Tom, to operate nanosats or a constellation. We mention KubOS here as it is a good example of what the current Space 4.0 operating model looks like today. While we have not reviewed KubOS from a security perspective, developing a secure framework for satellites is the right path forward, allowing mission developers to focus on the payload.

Some of the use cases available with Cubesats are:

  1. File transfers
  2. Remote communication via uplink/downlink
  3. Intra-satellite and inter-satellite communications
  4. Payload services such as camera and sensors telemetry
  5. Software Updates

KubOS is “creating a world where you can operate your small satellite from your web browser or iPhone”. KubOSobjective is to allow customers to send bits and not rockets to space and it is defining a new era of software-designed satellites. The satellite model is changing from relay type devices to remote computers in space using COTS components and leveraging TCP/IP routing capabilities. This model shift also means that there is more software executing on these satellites and more complex payload processing or interaction with the software stack and hence more attack surface.

To date, attacks on satellite systems from a cybersecurity perspective have typically been in the context of VSAT terminals, eavesdropping and hijacking. While there have been vulnerabilities found in the VSAT terminal software and its higher-level custom protocols, there seems to have been no focus and vulnerabilities discovered within the network software stack of the satellite itself. This may be since satellites are very expensive, as well as closed source, so not accessible to security researchers or cybercriminals, but this security by obscurity will not provide protection with the new era of nanosats. Nanosats use COTS components which will be accessible to cybercriminals.

Due to the closed nature of satellites there has not been much published on their system hardware and software stack. However, the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS), which develops standards and specifications including protocols for satellite communications, does give some insight. The CCSDS technical domains are:

  1. Space Internetworking Services
  2. Mission Ops. And Information Management Services
  3. Spacecraft Onboard Interface Services
  4. System Engineering
  5. Cross Support Services
  6. Space Link Services

The CCSDS standards are divided into color codes to represent recommended standards and practices versus informational and experimental. This is a very large source of data communications for satellite designers to aid them in a reference for implementation. However, as we have observed over the cyber threat landscape of the past few decades, secure standards and specifications for hardware, software and protocols do not always translate to secure implementation. The CCSDS defines a TCP/IP stack suitable for transmission over space datalinks as per figure 1 below. Satellites that become more connected, just like any other device on the internet, their network and protocol software stack will become more accessible and targeted. As we discussed in part 1 <insert link> of our Space 4.0 blog series, there have been many TCP/IP and remote protocol related vulnerabilities in both embedded devices and even state of the art operating systems such as Windows 10. The TCP/IP stack and remote protocol implementations are a common source of vulnerabilities due to the complexities of parsing in unsafe memory languages such as C and C++. There does not appear to be any open source implementations of the CCSDS TCP/IP protocol stack.

Figure 1 – CCSDS Space communications protocols reference model

The CubeSat Protocol (CSP) is a free open source TCP/IP stack implementation for communication over space datalinks, similar to the CCSDS TCP/IP stack. The CSP protocol library is implemented in C, open source and implemented in many Cubesats that have been deployed to space. The protocol can be used for communication from ground station to satellite, inter-satellite and the intra-satellite communication bus. There have been 3 vulnerabilities to date reported in this protocol.

Figure 2 below shows what a Cubesat architecture looks like from a trust boundary perspective relative to the satellite and other satellites within the constellation and the earth.

Figure 2 – Space LEO Cubesat architecture trust boundaries

No hardware, software, operating system or protocol is completely free of vulnerabilities. What is important from a security perspective is:

  1. The accessibility of the attack surface
  2. The motives and capabilities of the adversary to exploit an exposed vulnerability if present in the attack surface

As these low-cost satellites get launched in our LEO and become more connected, any exposed technology stack will become increasingly targeted by cybercriminals.

Space 4.0 Threat Modeling

This Space 4.0 threat model focuses on the cybercriminal and how they can exploit Space 4.0 data for monetization. The following Space 4.0 factors will make it more accessible to cybercriminals:

  1. Mass deployment of small satellites to LEO
  2. Cheaper satellites with COTS components and increased satellite on board software processing (no longer relay devices)
  3. Satellite service models, Ground Station-as-a-Service (GSaaS) and Satellite-as-a-Service (SataaS) and shared infrastructure across government, commercial and academic
  4. Satellite connectivity and networks in space (ISL – inter-satellite links)
  5. Space 4.0 data value

Space security has typically been analyzed from the perspective of ground segment, communications or datalink and space segment. Additionally, the attack classes have been categorized as electronic (jamming), eavesdropping, hijacking and control. Per figure 3 below, we need to think about Space 4.0 with a cybersecurity approach due to the increased connectivity and data, as opposed to the traditional approach of ground, communication and space segments. Cybercriminals will target the data and systems as opposed to the RF transmission layer.

Figure 3 – Space 4.0 threat modeling architecture

It is important to consider the whole interconnectivity of the Space 4.0 ecosystem as cybercriminals will exploit any means possible, whether that be direct or indirect access (another trusted component). Open source networked ground stations such as SatNOGs and the emerging NyanSat are great initiatives for space research but we should consider these in our overall threat model as they provide mass connectivity to the internet and space.

The traditional space security model has been built on a foundation of cost as a barrier to entry and perimeter-based security due to lack of physical access and limited remote access to satellites. However, once a device is connected to the internet the threat model changes and we need to think about a satellite as any other device which can be accessed either directly or indirectly over the internet.

In addition, if a device can be compromised in space remotely or through the supply chain, then that opens a new attack class of space to cloud/ground attacks.

Users and trusted insiders will always remain a big threat from a ground station perspective, just like enterprise security today, as they can potentially get direct access to the satellite control.

The movement of ground services to the cloud is a good business model if designed and implemented securely, however a compromise would impact many devices in space being controlled from the GSaaS. It is not quite clear where the shared responsibility starts and ends for the new SataaS and GSaaS Space 4.0 service models but the satellite key management system (KMS), data, GSaaS credentials and analytics intellectual property (this may reside in the user’s environment, the cloud or potentially the satellite but for the purposes of this threat model we assume the cloud) will be much valued assets and targeted.

From the Cyber and Space Threat Landscape review in part 1 <insert link>, combined with our understanding of the Space 4.0 architecture and attack surfaces, we can start to model the threats in Table 1 below.

Table 1 – Space 4.0 threats, attack classes and layers, and attack vectors

Based on the above threat model, let’s discuss a real credible threat and attack scenario. From our Space cyber threat landscape review in part 1 of this blog series, there were attacks on ground stations in 2008 at the Johnson Space Center and for a Nasa research satellite. In a Space 4.0 scenario, the cybercriminal attacks the ground station through phishing to get access to satellite communications (could also be a supply chain attack to get a known vulnerable satellite system into space). The cybercriminal uses an exploit being sold on the underground to exploit a remote wormable vulnerability within the space TCP/IP stack or operating system of the satellite in space, just like we saw EternalBlue being weaponized by WannaCry. Once the satellite has been compromised the malware can spread between satellite vendors using their ISL communication protocol to propagate throughout the constellation. Once the constellation has been compromised the satellite vendor can be held to ransom, causing major disruption to Space 4.0 data and/or critical infrastructure.

Moving Forward Securely for a Trustworthy Space 4.0 Ecosystem

Establishing a trustworthy Space 4.0 ecosystem is going to require strong collaboration between cyber threat research teams, government, commercial and academia in the following areas:

  1. Governance and regulation of security standards implementation and certification/validation of satellite device security capabilities prior to launch
  2. Modeling the evolving threat landscape against the Space 4.0 technology advancements
  3. Secure reference architectures for end to end Space 4.0 ecosystem and data protection
  4. Security analysis of the CCSDS protocols
  5. Design of trustworthy platform primitives to thwart current and future threats must start with a security capable bill of materials (BOM) for both hardware and software starting with the processor then the operating system, frameworks, libraries and languages. Hardware enabled security to achieve confidentiality, integrity, availability and identity so that satellite devices may be resilient when under attack
  6. Visibility, detection and response capabilities within each layer defined in our Space 4.0 architecture threat model above
  7. Development of a MITRE ATT&CK specifically for Space 4.0 as we observe real world incidents so that it can be used to strengthen the overall defensive security architecture using TTPs and threat emulation

Space 4.0 is moving very fast with GSaaS, SataaS and talk of space data centers and high-speed laser ISL; security should not be an inhibitor for time to market but a contributor to ensure that we have a strong security foundation to innovate and build future technology on with respect to the evolving threat landscape. Space communication predates the Internet so we must make sure any legacy limitations which would restrict this secure foundation are addressed. As software complexity for on board processing and connectivity/routing capability increases by moving to the edge (space device) we will see vulnerabilities within the Space 4.0 TCP/IP stack implementation.

This is a pivotal time for the secure advancement of Space 4.0 and we must learn from the mistakes of the past with IoT where the rush to adopt new and faster technology resulted in large scale deployment of insecure hardware and software. It has taken much effort and collaboration between Microsoft and the security research community since Bill Gates announced the Trustworthy Computing initiative in 2002 to arrive at the state-of-the-art Windows 10 OS with hardware enabled security. Likewise, we have seen great advancements on the IoT side with ARM Platform Security Architecture and Azure Sphere. Many security working groups and bodies have evolved since 2002, such as the Trust Computing Group, Confidential Computing Consortium, Trusted Connectivity Alliance and Zero Trust concept to name a few. There are many trustworthy building block primitives today to help secure Space 4.0, but we must leverage at the concept phase of innovation and not once a device has been launched into space; the time is now to secure our next generation infrastructure and data source. Space security has not been a priority for governments to date but that seems all set to change with the “Memorandum on Space Policy Directive-5—Cybersecurity Principles for Space Systems”.

We should pause here for a moment and recognize the recent efforts from the cybersecurity community to secure space, such as the Orbital Security Alliance, S-ISAC, Mantech and Defcon Hack-a-Sat.

KubOS is being branded as the Android of space systems and we are likely to see a myriad of new software and hardware emerge for Space 4.0. We must work together to ensure Space 4.0 connectivity does not open our global connectivity and infrastructure dependency to the next Mirai botnet or WannaCry worm on LEO.

McAfee would like to thank Cork Institute of Technology (CIT) and its Blackrock Castle Observatory (BCO) and the National Space Center (NSC) in Cork, Ireland for their collaboration in our mission to secure Space 4.0.

About the Author

Eoin Carroll

Eoin Carroll is a Principal Engineer and Senior Vulnerability Researcher on the McAfee Advanced Threat Research team, focused on researching the trustworthiness of emerging computing platforms and protocols. He also analyzes critical industry vulnerabilities and innovates advanced threat defenses. He has 20 years of diverse experience, from electronic engineering to a variety of offensive and ...

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Christiaan Beek

Christiaan Beek, lead scientist & sr. principal engineer is part of Mcafee’s Office of the CTO leading strategic threat intelligence research within Mcafee. He coordinates and leads passionately the research in advanced attacks, plays a key-role in cyberattack take-down operations and participates in the NoMoreRansom project. In previous roles, Beek was Director of Threat Intelligence ...

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