Space may be a new frontier in the battle in cyberspace, according to a new report.
Hackers, potentially from China, have been able to disrupt U.S. satellites through a Norwegian ground station connected to the Internet, according to a draft of the annual report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
The commission, which issues an annual report to Congress, said that U.S. satellites frequently use ground stations around the world, including the Svalbard Satellite Station in Spitsbergen, Norway. This station, like many others, relies on the Internet to access data and transfer files, the report said, presenting opportunities for hackers to hijack those restricted networks.
That is exactly what happened on four separate occasions in 2007 and 2008, according to a copy of the report obtained by The Huffington Post. On Oct. 20, 2007, a U.S. satellite jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey experienced 12 or more minutes of interference, the report said. Another attack went undetected in June 2008, and the breaches were only discovered during a third in July 2008. During a fourth cyber attack, the hackers "achieved all the steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands," the report said.
"Such interference poses numerous potential threats, particularly if achieved against satellites with more sensitive functions," according to the report, which was first reported Thursday by Bloomberg's Businessweek.
For example, hackers could damage or destroy a satellite if they gained access to its controls, according to the report. The commission did not attribute the attack to China, but said the techniques used "appear consistent with authoritative Chinese military writings."
The report also said China had “conducted or supported” a range of malicious cyber activities over the past year, including espionage and compromising U.S. and foreign government computer systems.
"Evidence also surfaced that suggests Chinese state-level involvement in targeted cyber attacks," the report said.
In August, the security firm McAfee revealed a massive spying operation with more than 70 targets in 14 countries. McAfee did not say who was behind the operation, but the timing of the spying and the list of targets -- which included South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, but not China -- renewed speculation that Beijing is actively engaged in espionage to steal state secrets and intellectual property.
The Chinese government has denied sponsoring hackers.
While the Pentagon has repeatedly warned its computer networks are increasingly under attack, the report found that malicious cyber activity against the Department of Defense fell from 71,661 in 2009 to 55,812 last year, and the commission projected that number would remain about the same this year.
However, the report warned that China's military strategy envisions the use of cyber attacks against adversaries, including the United States, in an effort to compromise operational systems, such as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence and surveillance, the report said.
"This could critically disrupt the U.S. military's ability to deploy and operate during a military contingency," the report said. "Chinese cyber attacks against strategic targets, such as critical infrastructure, are also possible."