The independent resource on global security

11. Space and cyberspace


Overview, Nivedita Raju and Lora Saalman

I. The space–cyber nexus, Nivedita Raju and Lora Saalman

II. Space attacks and cyberattacks in Ukraine, Nivedita Raju and Lora Saalman

III. Developments in space governance and the impact of the war in Ukraine, Nivedita Raju

IV. Developments in governance of cyberspace and the impact of the war in Ukraine, Lora Saalman

Space systems and other critical infrastructure have been the target of persistent cyberattacks during the war in Ukraine, demonstrating the growing significance and confluence of the space and cyber-space domains. A cyberattack on the ground terminals of a commercial satellite communications company, for example, caused ripple effects across Europe. Cyber-attacks were also directed against key Ukrainian government departments, such as the defence ministry and the armed forces. In addition, cyber-attacks targeted organizations in the agricultural, financial and information technology sectors, and disrupted Ukrainian telecommunications networks and power facilities. With some of the attacks blurring the line between cybercrime and cyberwarfare and affecting both military and civilian sectors across state borders, the war in Ukraine underscores the issues that must be addressed by international space and cyber governance.


These attacks at the nexus of the space and cyber domains disrupt or deny essential services, either temporarily or permanently. Because it is difficult to attribute responsibility for such cyber-attacks, discussions in multilateral forums for the governance of space and of cyber-space have highlighted the need for further measures to clarify state accountability and prevent or mitigate impact on civilians.


The space–cyber nexus

The overlap between the domains of space and cyberspace—the space-cyber nexus—has at least three main aspects. First, there is scope for cyberattacks to be directed against space systems, in particular the digital components on which they rely to transmit data. Second, the two domains share similar challenges with respect to international governance due to the difficulty in attributing the source of attacks and in establishing state accountability. Third, international law, including international humanitarian law, applies to both the space and cyberspace domains, yet because their systems are often dual-use—serving both civilian and military functions—and used by multiple states, there are questions regarding lawful targeting of such systems.


Space governance

In terms of space governance, a small but significant step towards new measures was the successful adoption of a resolution banning destructive, debris-generating, direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile tests by a majority of states at the United Nations General Assembly. Destructive DA-ASAT tests were among the threats to space systems discussed at the UN open-ended working group (OEWG) on reducing space threats, which convened under Resolution 76/231 for the first and second sessions in 2022. However, in the light of the continuing hostilities in Ukraine and differing views on priorities for space governance, achieving consensus on future measures through multilateral deliberations will be challenging.


Cyber governance

With regard to cyber governance, the second OEWG on ‘security of and in the use of information and communications technology 2021–2025’ continued its work in the face of the challenging geopolitical environment. The First Committee of the UN General Assembly welcomed a proposal for a programme of action (POA) to continue as a permanent, inclusive, action-oriented mechanism after the conclusion of the current OEWG. Nevertheless, this proposal remains contentious, as does participation in these UN meetings by the private sector and non-governmental organizations. Further, the ongoing cyberattacks on civilian critical infrastructure—allegedly conducted by both Russian and Ukrainian state and non-state actors before and during the Ukraine conflict—demonstrate the difficulty in enforcing the voluntary norms formulated during the ongoing UN process.


The activities and mechanisms required to enforce cyberspace norms are far from dormant, however. Cyber capacity- and confidence-building measures have been established under the second OEWG, including the development of a points of contact directory. In addition, international policing collaboration in apprehending cybercriminals has been evolving, not only with Ukraine but even between Russia and the United States. The 2022 international summit of the Counter Ransomware Initiative provided an action plan against ransomware, which is being leveraged for cyberwarfare as well as cybercrime aims. Cooperation with industry has also been expanding, as shown by a request by the US government for Microsoft to provide the code of the FoxBlade malware to European countries to help them combat cyberattacks.


Some types of malware used in cyberattacks


A backdoor allows access to a computer system or encrypted data through bypassing the system’s security mechanisms.


Ransomware threatens to publish the victim’s data or permanently block access to it unless a ransom is paid.


A trojan downloads malware disguised as a legitimate programme onto a computer.


A wiper erases user data and partition information from attached drives, making the system inoperable and unrecoverable.


The regulatory role of non-state actors

Government collaboration with the private sector in cyberspace mirrors the space domain, where commercial actors are increasingly engaged to support military services. In particular, Russian statements regarding the possible targeting of commercial space assets that support Ukrainian military services imply potential escalation and impacts on governance. However, some states’ objections to the involvement of non-state actors in UN processes governing space and cyberspace pose longer-term challenges in engaging both governments and the private sector in not just the creation of norms, but also their enforcement.

Nivedita Raju and Dr Lora Saalman