US Space Industry Under Threat from Foreign Cyber Espionage

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Foreign intelligence services could use direct and supply chain cyber-attacks to gain access to the US space industry, according to US intelligence.

In a joint advisory the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, the FBI and the US Air Force warned that foreign intelligence entities (FIEs) see US space-related innovation and assets as potential threats as well as valuable opportunities to acquire vital technologies and expertise.

The US is the top investor in the space industry, having spent $133bn since 2013, which accounts for 47% of all investments. China is second, with $79bn invested in space equity over the same period.

The top threats espionage campaigns against the US space industry pose include stealing intellectual property data, collecting sensitive data related to satellite payloads, disrupting and degrading US satellite communications and exploiting vulnerabilities in US commercial space infrastructure during conflicts.

The Usual Suspects: China, Russia and Iran

Although not explicitly named in the advisory, China, Russia and Iran are among the top nation-states from which cyber espionage campaigns targeting US space firms originate.

For instance, in October 2022, five Russian nationals were accused in an indictment of trying to illicitly acquire “semiconductors and microprocessors used in satellites, missiles, and other space-based military applications” from American companies.

In January 2023, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Spacety Luxembourg, a Luxembourg-based subsidiary of Chinese satellite provider Spacety China, for supplying Russia’s Wagner Group with radar satellite imagery of Ukraine to support its combat operations.

With the global space economy expected to grow from $469bn in 2021 to more than $1tn by 2030, these threats will likely become more critical.

The US space industry relies heavily on the private sector, with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic making up over 80% of the industry’s investments in the country.

At present, security measures in the sector vary from company to company – at least until the bipartisan bill to designate space as a critical infrastructure sector, proposed in July 2023, becomes law.

Read more: Five Takeaways From the Russian Cyber-Attack on Viasat's Satellites

Mitigating Espionage Campaigns Against Space Infrastructure

The advisory is the latest US initiative to tighten protections against foreign threats to the sector.

It provides guidance on how to identify an espionage campaign, report and mitigate it.

The mitigation measures include the following:

  • Develop an “anomaly” log to track peculiar incidents to potentially spot malicious trends  against your organization
  • Establish an insider threat program within your organization
  • Identify your “crown jewels” that are key to your company’s competitiveness and develop strategies to prevent or mitigate their loss
  • Conduct robust due diligence on suppliers and investors, understand their security practices, and set and enforce minimum standards for them
  • Incorporate security requirements, such as incident reporting, into third-party contracts and monitor compliance throughout the lifecycle of a product or service
  • Build resilience and redundancy into your operations to minimize harm from FIE targeting

In June, the US announced it will launch a Silent Barker constellation of spy satellites, which will search for and track "enemy" satellites.

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