Researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania and NASA have discovered a significant vulnerability in networking technology used in spacecraft, aircraft, power generation systems and industrial control systems.
UoM’s news portal Michigan News reported (opens in new tab) the flaw exploits a networking 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 critical devices, such as passenger Wi-Fi or data collection systems.
TTE was considered secure for more than a decade because the two types of network traffic were never allowed to interfere with each other on the same endpoint. It was originally created to reduce network costs while improving efficiency, the researchers said.
However, the researchers have now managed to break through this barrier with an attack called PCspooF, which they discuss in detail as part of a paper (opens in new tab) titled “PCspooF: Compromising the Security of Time-Triggered Ethernet”.
The team illustrated the flaw by using real NASA hardware to simulate an asteroid diversion test, specifically the stage where a capsule must dock with a spacecraft.
As the capsule would attempt to dock, the attack mixed vital and non-vital communications, disrupting messages passing through the system and creating a cascading effect. Eventually, the capsule veered off course and completely missed the dock.
Baris Kasikci, the Morris Wellman Faculty Development Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, laid bare the risks. “If someone were to carry out this attack during a real spaceflight mission, what would the damage be?”
However, to successfully perform a PCSpooF attack, the attacker must place a small, malicious device on the network, which means that remote attacks are not possible.
In other good news, the flaw can be fixed relatively easily by replacing copper Ethernet with fiber optic cables or by installing optical isolators between switches and untrusted devices.
That would eliminate the risk of electromagnetic interference, although researchers say it would affect performance.