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This is Major Tom to Ground Control – You’ve Really Failed the Grade

The hackers who breached NASA do not care… Now it’s time to face the fall-out if you dare

Fifty years ago, July 1969, David Bowie released his iconic ‘Space Odyssey’ song, NASA launched Apollo 11, and astronauts took their first steps on the moon. It was a momentous time in the history of space travel.

Little did NASA or any of us know back then, that fifty years later, the danger would lurk – not in some unknown planet, but a different type of world – namely the ‘online’ world.

We can all be excused for this oversight since back then the ‘online’ world was yet to be discovered. There was no Internet or Wi-Fi. Acronyms such as BYOD and IoT would only take meaning decades later, and Raspberry Pi was still thought of as a dessert, not a small computer vulnerable to attack.

Fifty Years Later

The world is a very different place today. We live in the era of the Internet, where everyone and everything is connected.  NASA is no exception; they have networks that control spacecraft, collect scientific data, and perform critical operations. Like other organizations, their networks are constantly under attack by cybercriminals.

A report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General was published last month and outlined its findings from an investigation into a security breach affecting NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in March 2018.

In summary:

An account belonging to an external user was compromised.The attackers accessed the JPL network by targeting a Raspberry Pi computer that was not authorized to be attached to the network.The attackers exfiltrated ~500MB of data, including International Traffic in Arms Regulations info related to the Mars Science Laboratory Mission.The nature of the architecture of the network allowed the attackers to expand their access upon entry and move laterally across the network. The attack went undetected for nearly a year.Officials were sufficiently concerned about the possibility of the cyber-attackers moving laterally into their mission systems, and potentially gaining access and initiating malicious signals to human space flight missions, that they opted to disconnect the international space station temporarily.  

The Cyber-Attack ‘Narrative’

The comprehensive NASA report makes for an interesting read – not because the breach is different from other breaches you read about, but instead because of how eerily similar the cybersecurity attack ‘narrative’ has become.  


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