The Nature of Threats to Satellite Information Assurance

Satellite communications and the applications it powers are woven into our daily lives. From GPS to early-warning weather reports, the public depends on reliable SATCOM. For the military, the advanced C4ISR supported by commercial SATCOM is critical for maintaining American military superiority and homeland security.

However, the SATCOM technology upon which both citizens and soldiers rely is constantly under attack. Last year, Intelsat experienced over 300,000 distributed denial of service attacks – these attacks were designed to limit the network throughput and high availability delivered regularly to our customers.  Our ability to drastically limit the effect of those attacks will be discussed in an upcoming post.

This is a first of a multipart series in which I’ll discuss the nature of threats to satellite-based information assurance, and proactive steps Intelsat and Intelsat General are taking to mitigate those threats. In this piece I’ll attempt to define the nature and the scope of the threat. Subsequent stories will focus on how we’re addressing these threats, and the use of innovative new technologies and approaches that reduce the threat level.

Intentional or unintentional satellite jamming can be achieved using fairly basic technology assembled by either individuals or nations with only a modest investment.  Multiple reports of both state and non-state groups jamming satellites have been seen quite often over the last decade.  GPS jammers are well known and are offered openly for sale on the Internet.  Such interference events can undermine the quality standards and service-level agreements which enable Intelsat to provide high-availability service to each customer.

As a high-technology company, Intelsat is subject to advanced persistent threats (APT) attempting to ex-filtrate data from company systems, hypothetically even on our next generation satellite designs. At a minimum, this data is competitively sensitive and could cost us hundreds of millions of dollars – in addition to hurting our customers.

When viewing our global network, key infrastructure and network threat areas include:

  • Environmental – Space and Terrestrial
  • Physical Attack – in space and on ground assets
  • Configuration Management
  • Human Interaction
  • Computer Network Attack
  • Computer Network Exploitation
  • Signal Intercept
  • Electronic Attack
  • Supply Chain Attacks – space segment and ground/control segment
  • Reverse Engineering
  • Positioning Threats – Space objects and Geo-location

The graphic below illustrates the common threats to a satellite communications network:

In my next installment, I’ll describe some of the ways Intelsat is proactively combating these constant threats to satellite-based information assurance in order to maintain the high availability and throughput required by our customers.