Researchers from the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and NASA have discovered a major security flaw in network technology used in spacecraft, aircraft, power generation systems and industrial control systems.
UoM information portal Michigan news reported (opens in a new tab) The vulnerability exploits a network protocol and hardware system known as time-triggered ethernet or TTE.
This system allows mission-critical devices such as life support systems to co-exist on the same network hardware as less important devices such as passenger Wi-Fi or data collection systems.
TTE was considered secure for over a decade because the two types of network traffic could never collide on the same endpoint. The researchers said it was originally created to reduce network costs while improving performance.
However, researchers have now managed to break through this barrier with an attack dubbed PCspooF, which is discussed extensively in paper (opens in a new tab) titled “PCspooF: Compromising the security of time-triggered Ethernet.”
The team illustrated the vulnerability by using real NASA hardware to simulate the asteroid redirection test, specifically the stage where the capsule must dock with the spacecraft.
As the capsule attempted to dock, the attack combined important and non-essential communications, disrupting messages passing through the system and creating a cascading effect. Finally, the capsule veered off course and completely missed the dock.
Baris Kasikci, Morris Wellman’s assistant professor of development in the computer science and engineering department, laid bare the risks. “If someone made this attack on a real space mission, what would the damage be?”
However, for a successful PCSpooF attack, an attacker needs to put a small, malicious device into the network, which means that remote attacks are not possible.
The other good news is that the vulnerability can be fixed relatively easily by replacing copper Ethernet with fiber optic cables or by installing optical isolators between switches and untrusted devices.
This would eliminate the risk of electromagnetic interference, although according to the researchers it would have an impact on performance.