For DEFCON 2020, which is the world’s largest hacking convention, the United States Air Force (USAF) is challenging the hackers of the world to hack an orbiting satellite and/or its ground station.

Any vital piece of technology needs to be challenged to improve its defenses. The realm of space exploration, space warfare, and general space access is far closer to reality than science fiction today. In the wake of many security breaches, it’s better to test now than later.

Confused as to why a military organization would invite people to attack its active assets? Here are a few details to help you understand what already happens, what is at stake, and what everyone has to gain.


If You Can Reach It, You Can Hack It

Technology has become more accessible, and all of the benefits and dangers that come with access have come to fruition. The idea that a satellite could be hacked isn’t a scary, paranoid thought; it’s a realistic, unfortunate, and expensive fact.

Satellite technology has to be built, tested, and finalized for longevity. It’s not easy to launch major security updates from the earth to space, especially with data corruption and corrections to code in the mix.

Because of that lack of access, satellites have vulnerabilities that may not change for years. If someone were to have access to the satellite’s design, they could easily exploit this information and manipulate a satellite that owners could not immediately power down.

That said, while satellite access is expensive for military operations, the stakes aren’t as high as they will be when greater space access is granted. Right now, devastating hacking techniques can be accessed by grade-schoolers and with easy shopping cart services. They just can’t reach satellites—yet.

The ability to send a signal close enough to a satellite is rocket science, and rocket science is no longer that hard. An easier challenge would be to hack ground stations; buildings that control satellites are local and easier to attack.

Hackers—or to be true to modern times, tech enthusiasts in general—are always curious. Hacking a satellite is a matter of if, not when, and with military intelligence hinging upon distant communications and surveillance, it’s time to test defenses now.


Forced Exposure for Forced Evolution

The best way to test tech security is to attack it, and the best attacks come from people outside of the system.

Just as your home and work computer may have strange glitches or bugs, satellites and ground station systems may have bizarre openings that allow open access. Suffering from these attacks is expensive, and it’s cheaper to suffer the attacks on purpose and with the ability to react than to be unprepared.

There will always be a few hackers who hide their intentions. Some will wait until after the conference to attack, and some may try to hide quiet payloads of attack data to activate later.

Not everyone is a fan of the government, and this challenge is clearly helping the USAF. Because of that, some hackers will avoid interacting in a helpful manner. If they attack, it will be on their terms.

Still, creative minds that try their hand at hacking will deliver valuable data. It’s not just military data; the techniques can tell anyone involved in tech a few things:

  • How long it takes to respond to attacks in space from the ground.
  • How complete a security suite can be before being sent to space.
  • How easy it is to hack a ground station, satellite, or both.

That information can help everything from personal computer security to corporate espionage protection to Antarctic exploration.

Get in touch with a cybersecurity expert to discuss the changes and breakthroughs that could come from the USAF satellite challenge.

Kelly Hoggan Aviation Security Footer