SpaceX has begun encrypting the telemetry data from its rocket launches after some amateur radio sleuths were able to lock onto the 2232.5 MHz telemetry downlink from a recent Falcon 9 launch. With the link, they were able to capture plain text data and photos from the rocket and its onboard cameras.
The information was quickly posted to Reddit. SpaceX had previously encrypted data being transmitted over radio frequencies during the highly explosive high-altitude tests of its Starship prototypes. However, it hasn’t bothered to encrypt the Falcon 9’s radio signals until the information went public. The radio transmissions for Wednesday’s launch of 60 more Starlink satellites became unintelligible even for people who had the right equipment to intercept the signal.
The ability to intercept and possibly interfere with radio signals has long been a concern for the aerospace industry. During the 1960s, NASA personnel observed a “fishing vessel” with Soviet registry operating off the coast of Cape Canaveral and sporting a suspicious amount of radio equipment. Security measures included frequent changes to the radio frequency being used to transmit commands to rockets and the spacecraft they launched in an attempt to prevent the Soviets from sending a false command.
Many amateur radio operators were upset with SpaceX’s decision to encrypt the Falcon 9’s transmissions, saying that they weren’t doing anything wrong. The general sentiment in the community is that it could cost them access to new satellites and crewed spacecraft.
However, the fact that they were able to decode it in the first place means that it could have been misused by still more sophisticated parties, including those backed by foreign governments. SpaceX could lose valuable proprietary data and its ability to fill contractual obligations for launches related to national security missions if it fails to secure its telemetry.
The company may have reason to be especially paranoid concerning security, considering past security breaches that impacted both SpaceX and Tesla. A Russian national has recently pled guilty to charges related to his role in an attempted ransomware scheme in which he offered a bribe to a Tesla employee to inject ransomware into its IT system. A “hacktivist” group successfully accessed video recordings from facilities managed by Tesla.
Cybersecurity experts have also expressed concern about cyberattacks against NASA and its private contractors that have been traced to international actors in countries that are not particularly friendly toward the United States, such as China and Romania. In one 2012 case, a laptop being used by a NASA employee was stolen. The laptop contained commands for the International Space Station, although there is no evidence that unauthorized parties have actually attempted to use the information to control the International Space Station.
In other cases, the attackers were able to gain access to NASA’s internal IT infrastructure. The experts say these attacks have caused hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in damage apiece and caused the loss of valuable data from NASA’s space-based assets.
So SpaceX is simply protecting assets worth millions and sometimes billions of dollars by encrypting transmissions for rocket launches, even at the expense of annoying amateur radio operators. Most of the access might have been the innocent enthusiasm of Redditors with radio equipment. However, it has chosen to protect its valuable assets against potential bad operators who act on behalf of unfriendly nations or even just hate everything that Elon Musk and SpaceX represent.