Explainer: Jamming and Spoofing

Justin Baker Avatar by Justin Baker
on June 10, 2020

Today’s Research Paper: Space, the Final Frontier for Cybersecurity?

Jamming and spoofing are two very real threats to satellites, yet it can be difficult to defend against such attacks. Both attacks can have disastrous consequences to communications and navigation; two vital uses of satellites today. With so much at stake, what are these attacks?

“Jamming is an attempt to degrade and disrupt connectivity by interfering with the signals that are the means for communication.”

Jamming is a well known threat to all wireless communication devices. In the case of satellites, it occurs when an attacker intentionally uses an interfering signal such as radio noise or electromagnetic signals to inhibit satellite communications. A jamming device typically transmits signals of the same frequency used by the satellite, thus drowning out the true message. When it comes to satellites, jamming can occur in the downlink from satellite to ground station (terrestrial jamming) or in the uplink from ground station to satellite (orbital jamming). There have been many instances of terrestrial jamming that enable authoritarian governments to censor information and communication. The trouble is jammers can be inexpensive, small, and simple to use which only makes it easier for such an attack to occur. From the paper:

“Cases of mobile phone jammers have been documented with handheld units being able to block calls within a range of approximately 3 to 5 kilometres in urban areas.”

On the other hand, orbital jamming can be caused from anywhere within the coverage area of the satellite. This shifts the impact of the attack from a localized area to the entire coverage region, increasing its effect. There have been instances of satellite jamming by Iran in an attempt to censor information which impacted other areas of the world.

“Spoofing goes beyond jamming to distort or replace the wanted signal with a false signal.”

In order to be successful, a spoofing attack must block out the true signal while injecting an indistinguishable signal with the spoofed information. The paper explains a possible attack that uses spoofing to act as a controller of a power grid. This false controller could then cause a power surge in an electrical grid, triggering blackouts over a large geographic area and causing large amounts of property damage. The paper also cites a demonstration done by Dr Todd Humphreys in which he and his lab created a device that spoofed GPS locations. Using this device, they were able to target a yacht and make it appear as if it were off course.

“The captain, not realizing that the GPS signal was incorrect, adjusted course so that true track of the vessel was inaccurate by a few degrees. The implications of this form of attack, perhaps on a laden, very large crude carrier manoeuvring in confined waters, are only too clear.”

It is clear that these types of attacks can have disastrous consequences on a large scale. We must actively work to research ways to mitigate their effects or prevent these attacks in the first place. If you found this post interesting, I highly recommend reading the entire paper as it goes further in depth on these attacks as well as others. It also talks a lot about the politics of securing satellites and why it isn’t as easy as one might think. I hope to do an article on that topic sometime soon.


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