Space Odyssey: An Experimental Software Security Analysis of Satellites

Willbold, Johannes and Schloegel, Moritz and Vögele, Manuel and Gerhardt, Maximilian and Holz, Thorsten and Abbasi, Ali
(2023) Space Odyssey: An Experimental Software Security Analysis of Satellites.
In: IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, San Francisco, USA.

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Satellites are an essential aspect of our modern society and have contributed significantly to the way we live today, most notable through modern telecommunications, global positioning, and Earth observation. In recent years, and especially in the wake of the New Space Era, the number of satellite deployments has seen explosive growth. Despite its critical importance, little academic research has been con- ducted on satellite security and, in particular, on the security of onboard firmware. This lack likely stems from by now outdated assumptions on achieving security by obscurity, effectively preventing meaningful research on satellite firmware. In this paper, we first provide a taxonomy of threats against satellite firmware. We then conduct an experimental security analysis of three real-world satellite firmware images. We base our analysis on a set of real-world attacker models and find several security-critical vulnerabilities in all analyzed firmware images. The results of our experimental security assessment show that modern in-orbit satellites suffer from different software security vulnerabilities and often a lack of proper access protection mechanisms. They also underline the need to overcome prevailing but obsolete assumptions. To substantiate our observations, we also performed a survey of 19 professional satellite developers to obtain a comprehensive picture of the satellite security landscape.


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