Protecting a rover from hackers

Cybersecurity is a serious issue not just for computers on Earth, but also for those in space.

Last month, JAXA (Japan’s space agency) announced that hackers had broken in to gain access to information about the Kibo Space Station module. The information consisted of Kibo “operation preparations” and mailing lists. In September, a 16-year-old was sentenced to six months in jail for hacking into NASA (and other) computers. In early 2012, NASA’s Inspector General Paul Martin testified to Congress about the state of NASA’s cybersecurity defenses and woes. “In 2010 and 2011, NASA reported 5,408 computer security incidents that resulted in the installation of malicious software on or unauthorized access to its systems,” he said. This goes beyond hacking into an employee’s PC: “The March 2011 theft of an unencrypted NASA notebook computer resulted in the loss of the algorithms used to command and control the International Space Station.”

Naturally, the same concerns apply for our rovers on Mars.

On Tuesday, I attended a talk titled “MSL Cyber-security implementation status report” by Bryan Johnson and Glen Elliott of JPL. You can view the slides from a similar conference talk. They reported on the long list of actions the team has taken to increase the security of operations and commanding for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover. These include the implementation of Two-Factor Authentication for access to mission systems and applications, consolidating computers into a single virtual LAN, implementing and testing an “incident response process,” and taking obvious (but time-consuming and easy-to-overlook) steps like pruning the list of people with access to the MSL network.

These steps all aim to improve security here on the ground. I asked whether they would discuss measures being taken to prevent unauthorized access to the rover itself, such as encryption or authentication prior to the rover accepting commands. Unfortunately, they declined to discuss it, but the unofficial word is that there is little or no security on the rover side. Conceivably, anyone with a powerful enough antenna and the right pointing information could send the same kind of signals currently being transmitted by the Deep Space Network to all of our remote assets (rovers, orbiters, and other spacecraft). And as we know, security through obscurity only gets you so far. MSL has had a sufficiently high profile that a rumor began circulating last August that the hacker group Anonymous was trying to gain access to the rover:

MarsCuriosity: “Anyone in Madrid, Spain or Canbarra who can help isolate the huge control signal used for the Mars Odyssey / Curiosity system please? The cypher and hopping is a standard mode, just need base frequency and recordings/feed of the huge signal going out. (yes we can spoof it both directions!)”

A group dedicated to “Space Asset Protection” is looking into this side of the problem. Unfortunately, there is some reluctance to adopt encryption, which carries its own overhead in complexity and bandwidth consumption for the often severely limited data links available for spacecraft communication.

And as for authentication, there’s always the chance that the rover might suddenly say, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

1 Comment
1 of 1 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Terran said,

    May 16, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Woo. I guess I’m not surprised. Everything is a target, sadly.

    I wonder if they’ll be willing to reconsider crypto and strong authentication after someone manages to wedge or destroy a billion-dollar spacecraft?

    And I’d expect that it’s not just Anonymous and other small fry either. Rival governments have a lot of interest in being able to take each others’ satellites offline for sure. There’s less tactical advantage in taking down, say, Curiosity or whatever. But considering the cost of MSL, it would be a noticeable economic blow to the US/EU if they could trash it. That means that somebody has economic and political motivation to do so, and some of the somebodies almost certainly have broadcast capability to send the signals.

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