How hackers could turn satellites into weapons

Gasp! A group of wicked hackers are threatening to take over the world's satellites, crippling communications and sending humanity back to the information stone age where we had to read newspapers for information ... unless, of course, we pay them a king's ransom in whatever it is that hackers desire most. Bitcoin, perhaps? Would offering them a lifetime supply of Mountain Dew be too cliche? No matter. After all, this is clearly just a scenario straight out of a bad disaster movie, or perhaps a video game. Or is it? 

On February 12, 2020, cyber conflict expert William Akoto of the University of Denver wrote a worrying Live Science article that insinuated hackers may indeed be able to gain control of at least some of the satellites orbiting planet Earth. This is potentially a huge thing, because the satellite game is about to change completely. While UCS tells us there are a little over 2,200 satellites in orbit right now, companies like Amazon and OneWeb are about to launch thousands more within the next few months. SpaceX alone has a decade-long plan that involves the launch of no less than 42,000 satellites. It's about to get crowded up there, and should hackers gain access to some of the satellites, there are all sorts of shenanigans they could pull. They could shut them down, or use them to mess around with the most critical bits of our infrastructure. Oh, and they could potentially even steer the satellites, because some of the newer ones are equipped with thrusters. 

Satellites are surprisingly simple

So, how does one gain access to a satellite with hacking? Well, just because a satellite likes to hang around in space doesn't necessarily mean it's a particularly complex piece of technology. Especially some of the smaller, simpler ones are basically cobbled together with open-source tech and parts that you can buy off the shelf, which keeps their costs low but also means that hackers have access to the same materials and can teach themselves how to use them ... and, as it happens, to hack them. After you have that know-how, Dr. Akoto suspects that the actual hacking may be as simple as abusing security vulnerabilities on the ground stations that control the satellites, or even just setting up a ground antenna and send up your signal as the satellite passes overhead. 

There's also the point that hackers are already all over satellites. The first time they took control of a satellite — the U.S./German ROSAT — was way back in 1998, and the hacks have become more and more sophisticated since then. But surely, the satellite-building companies can just up their cyber security game? Sure, they could — but seeing as they're pretty much forced to cut costs just to stay ahead of the competition, an off-world version of Norton Antivirus is probably pretty low on their priority list.