What happened?

In early November, the Finnish military command accused Russia of jamming GPS signals during a NATO military exercise. Several civilian aircraft were forced to switch to other means of navigation, but the GPS failure caused no immediate danger. Still, this incident reminds us of our growing reliance on outer-space systems and the means our (future) enemies have to distort them. Moreover, satellites can be hacked, as happened in 2007 and 2008, and may be used to spread fake news from outer space or do harm otherwise.

What does this mean?

Communication and navigation obviously rely heavily on satellites and this is increasingly true for agriculture, finance (for GPS timestamps on transactions) and environmental protection. In the future, activities such as mining and manufacturing may also take place in orbit. As the strategic importance of space grows, adversaries will be more likely to try and sabotage or hack operations in space. Beyond the jamming of signals, malicious parties could even spread false information (e.g. imagery) to, for instance, farmers or stock brokers. This is not mere sci-fi. Russia, among other nations, already has the capability to interfere with different kinds of satellite signals. It is thus no wonder that the U.S. air force is spending billions to develop “jam-proof” networks for its most secretive communications and that commercial systems (which are also used by the military) are also investing heavily in cybersecurity.

What’s next?

The race to control space is not limited to digital weaponry. All major military powers are developing the capability to take out each other’s satellites, either by means of missiles or high-power lasers or even through fighter-satellites that are able to destroy (or interfere with) other satellites. In theory, hackers (or tech-savvy terrorists) may even be able to hack and weaponize weakly protected (or out-of-use) satellites and use them to attack more important (and better protected) satellites. From a broader perspective, satellites are merely one element in the expanding planetary network. This network is inherently vulnerable (e.g. to so-called BGP hijacking by China in 2010 and possibly by Russia and China this month) and will increasingly become a theatre of geopolitical rivalry.