Cal Poly Wins First-Ever Grant on Space Cybersecurity from US National Science Foundation

Study to anticipate novel cyberattack scenarios and gaps in space law and ethics

The Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group today announced that it has been awarded a $300,000 grant from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to study outer space cybersecurity, both technical and policy dimensions.  The two-year project is the first that the NSF has funded on the subject and is timely given recent international conflicts and tensions.

Earlier this year, Russia allegedly hacked the satellite-internet services of Viasat, a US-based company, in Europe as a prelude to its invasion of Ukraine.  Another US company, SpaceX, also accused Russia of cyberattacks against its Starlink satellite-internet network in an effort to disrupt communications in the same campaign.  At the same time, the head of Russia’s space agency provocatively declared that satellite hacking would be casus belli or a justification to go to war.

According to the project’s principal investigator Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group and philosophy professor at Cal Poly, it’s now urgent to study space cybersecurity given a perfect storm of the factors that include:

  1. Unclear laws and norms on space conduct, since what little space law exists tends to be vague and open to interpretation.
  2. Accelerating pace of space activities, such as launching constellations of thousands of small satellites.
  3. Unprecedented mix of private and governmental efforts in space, which often lack coordination and standards for cybersecurity.
  4. Rising competition among states that may slip into conflicts or at least reduce good will and cooperation that would prevent conflicts.
  5. Use of new tactics and technologies in space, such as artificial intelligence and laser communication links, that introduce novel vulnerabilities.
  6. Severity of potential harms, especially in terms of multiplying space debris (i.e., Kessler syndrome) and loss of mission-critical connectivity, such as GPS and communications for financial transactions.
  7. Cyberoperations are often a preferred mode of attack, since it’s often difficult to identify the perpetrator, less escalatory than kinetic weapons that cause physical destruction, and doesn’t require putting “boots on the ground” that would risk human lives or capture.

Lin explained, “All of our space laws, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, are just too old and need to be updated for today’s technological realities.  At the same time, space systems are increasingly complex, which means more cyberattack vectors that need to be anticipated for informed policy planning and technical designs.”

With interdisciplinary scholars and prominent expert consultants, the new project will (1) generate novel and surprising scenarios for space cyberattacks and (2) identify and analyze gaps and tensions in space law and norms that might allow for misunderstandings and conflict in the already contested but vital domain of outer space.

“Policymakers must have a grasp of the many possible ways that space assets could be cyberattacked,” added Lin.  “But there are only a few scenarios that anyone usually mentions: hacking a satellite or ground station, spoofing or jamming signals such as GPS, and crashing space debris into satellites.  That’s pretty much it.  We want to deliver a much more robust set of scenarios, along with policy analysis, to help inform planning discussions worldwide on space security.”

The Cal Poly research team includes faculty researchers from the College of Liberal Arts (technology ethicists Patrick Lin, Keith Abney, and Ryan Jenkins) and the College of Engineering (cybersecurity expert Bruce DeBruhl and space-systems expert Pauline Faure).  The project is also supported by the Grants Development Office (Susanne Gartner) and Sponsored Programs (Stephany Martin).

The groundbreaking project also extends Cal Poly’s leadership in aerospace, which includes co-inventing CubeSats, organizing one of the first symposiums on space cybersecurity, and producing notable astronauts, such as Victor Glover and Burt Rutan.  Its relationship with US Space Command, including nearby Vandenberg Space Force Base, and reputation in technology ethics also makes Cal Poly a natural home for the NSF project.

As part of the project, Cal Poly is teaming up with Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Hoover Institution to organize an expert meeting on space cybersecurity in late March 2023.  The two-year project is scheduled to end in summer 2024 and will culminate in a public report and other outputs.

ABOUT ETHICS + EMERGING SCIENCES GROUP


Based at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group is a non-partisan organization focused on emerging technology ethics, including risk, legal, policy, and social impacts of new technologies and sciences.

physical destruction, and doesn’t require putting “boots on the ground” that
would risk human lives or capture.
Lin explained, “All of our space laws, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, are just
too old and need to be updated for today’s technological realities. At the same
time, space systems are increasingly complex, which means more cyberattack
vectors that need to be anticipated for informed policy planning and technical
designs.”
With interdisciplinary scholars and prominent expert consultants, the new project
will (1) generate novel and surprising scenarios for space cyberattacks and (2)
identify and analyze gaps and tensions in space law and norms that might allow for
misunderstandings and conflict in the already contested but vital domain of outer
space.
“Policymakers must have a grasp of the many possible ways that space assets
could be cyberattacked,” added Lin. “But there are only a few scenarios that
anyone usually mentions: hacking a satellite or ground station, spoofing or jamming
signals such as GPS, and crashing space debris into satellites. That’s pretty much
it. We want to deliver a much more robust set of scenarios, along with policy
analysis, to help inform planning discussions worldwide on space security.”
The Cal Poly research team includes faculty researchers from the College of Liberal
Arts (technology ethicists Patrick Lin, Keith Abney, and Ryan Jenkins) and the
College of Engineering (cybersecurity expert Bruce DeBruhl and space-systems
expert Pauline Faure). The project is also supported by the Grants Development
Office (Susanne Gartner) and Sponsored Programs (Stephany Martin).
The groundbreaking project also extends Cal Poly’s leadership in aerospace, which
includes co-inventing CubeSats, organizing one of the first symposiums on space
cybersecurity, and producing notable astronauts, such as Victor Glover and Burt
Rutan. Its relationship with US Space Command, including nearby Vandenberg
Space Force Base, and reputation in technology ethics also makes Cal Poly a natural
home for the NSF project.
As part of the project, Cal Poly is teaming up with Stanford’s Center for International
Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and Hoover Institution to organize an expert
meeting on space cybersecurity in late March 2023. The two-year project is
scheduled to end in summer 2024 and will culminate in a public report and other
outputs.
ABOUT ETHICS + EMERGING SCIENCES GROUP
2

Based at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group is a non-
partisan organization focused on emerging technology ethics, including risk, legal,
policy, and social impacts of new technologies and sciences.

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