The cyberattack of our nightmares: What if hackers target our satellites?

·2 min read

Our vulnerability to cyberattack has been repeatedly exposed in recent months as utilities, schools and even the world's largest meat supplier have been targeted. The attacks have disrupted critical supply lines and inflicted billions of dollars in damages.

On Monday, President Joe Biden's administration – along with NATO, the European Union and other allies – blamed China's Ministry of State Security for a hack that compromised thousands of Microsoft Exchange email servers and attempted to extort millions of dollars from companies around the world.

This comes two months after Biden issued an executive order that acknowledged we face a national emergency in the race to improve cybersecurity.

Yet, Biden and other leaders have paid little attention, at least publicly, to a critical area vulnerable to attack, one that if compromised could severely harm our national security and our economy.

Why is space – and the thousands of essential satellites and ground stations – not mentioned as the new frontier of cybersecurity?

A cyberattack on our networks of satellites and earth-based stations could severely disrupt the communications, energy, financial and health care sectors. Our Global Positioning System, essential to transportation networks and other critical services, also could be damaged.

Our vulnerability to cyber attack has been repeatedly exposed in recent months as utilities, schools and even the world's largest meat supplier have been targeted. The attacks have disrupted critical supply lines and inflicted billions of dollars in damages.
Our vulnerability to cyber attack has been repeatedly exposed in recent months as utilities, schools and even the world's largest meat supplier have been targeted. The attacks have disrupted critical supply lines and inflicted billions of dollars in damages.

If the president assumes that space is included in his executive order, then what are the practical implications for the Federal Communications Commission's approval of more than 80,000 satellites and millions of earth stations?

Space critical to nation's infrastructure

We urge President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who is chair of the National Space Council, to recognize explicitly that space is an essential component of critical national infrastructure.

We're concerned that the Department of Commerce was not mentioned in the executive order, as it has jurisdiction over export controls that cover cybersecurity related to satellite launches and operations.

USA TODAY's opinion newsletter: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox.

Why is the FCC not requiring DOC clearance on every permit, license and elevation modification that involves export or re-export authorization on products, software, technology and data that have dual use applications and present cybersecurity risks?

Why is the FCC also not securing sign-off from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the newly created Cyber Safety Review Board before approval of any new rocket or satellite launch?

For now, no one in government appears to be scrutinizing the cybersecurity risks associated with our satellite operations.

Push pause on satellite licenses

Given the devastating consequences of a successful cyberattack on our assets in space, why not order a 180-day pause on FCC satellite licenses so that the thousands of satellites already in orbit can be carefully assessed for vulnerability.

When it comes to cybersecurity, what happens in space is every bit as critical as what happens on Earth. The president needs to explicitly recognize that fact.

Lisa Donnan is operating partner at Option3 Ventures. Julian Gresser is a former senior adviser to the U.S. State Department and the World Bank, and twice a Visiting Mitsubishi Professor at the Harvard Law School. He is co-founder of The Balance Group.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How a cyberattack in space could devastate America's economy

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting