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  • Writer's pictureFlow Australia

Star wars not so far, far away experts say

Foreign powers could use cyber attacks on space assets to cripple vital infrastructure and undermine financial and democratic processes, experts warn.

Australians are painfully familiar with the threats that abound in cyberspace but experts are warning of looming dangers posed by cyber in space.

Space-based technologies, such as GPS positioning and timing services, have become deeply ingrained in modern society, but many people are oblivious to how important and how vulnerable they are.

Increasingly, foreign powers are looking to outer space for ways to disrupt their rivals' defence, infrastructure, economic, financial and democratic processes, Flinders University cybersecurity expert Rodrigo Praino says.

He poses a hypothetical scenario of a cyber attack on a telecommunications satellite during a US presidential election.

If communications were knocked out, there would be no way of determining the location of ballot boxes, undermining faith in the democratic process.

"Counting votes is not something that you directly connect to space," Professor Praino told AAP.

"But if that happened, what does that mean for democratic resilience, for faith in democratic institutions, faith in the results of the election?

"There are so many things that go through space technology nowadays that any attack to any space asset, commercial or government-owned, can produce significant disruption in modern society."

Cybersecurity expert Rodrigo Praino has warned of the threat to space infrastructure.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, they knocked out a privately-owned satellite used by the Ukrainian military.

But given the intertwined nature of space technology, the attack also disabled telecommunications in France, Italy, Greece, Poland and Hungary, as well as electricity generation assets in Germany.

Space has traditionally been the preserve of governments but the proliferation of commercial equipment and services has opened it up to the kind of cybersecurity threats faced on the ground.

"It becomes very difficult to discern between what is military and what is commercial," Professor Praino said.

"At the end of the day, if you shut down communication in one country there are massive consequences, even though that's not technically a military asset or a military technology."

The need for cyber vigilance has been repeatedly impressed upon policymakers in recent years following high-profile data breaches at Optus, Medibank and Latitude Financial.

The federal government has promised to release a cybersecurity strategy before the end of the year, putting the onus on companies and developers to keep Australians safe online.

Professor Praino hopes more discussion about the issue, including at the first Australian Space Cyber Forum in Adelaide on Tuesday, will help find the kinds of technical and regulatory solutions needed to protect space assets from cyber attacks.


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