Quick! How do satellites keep their location information secret without crashing into other satellites? That is a very good question, and one that many companies and governments are trying to solve. No one wants any more satellite collisions such as the one in 2009 when US’s Iridium 33 collided with Russia’s Cosmos 2251, destroying both satellites.
Here is the problem: Satellite stakeholders view location data as proprietary information. Leaking that data could degrade competitive advantage. Simultaneously, governments rightfully have concerns over national security.
Currently, the conundrum is being handled by empowering an independent third party, Analytical Graphics, to receive everyone’s satellite location data confidentially. Analytical Graphics then runs the calculations and alerts relevant parties about possible collisions. The one downfall to this arrangement is that all parties must unequivocally trust Analytical Graphics.
Recognizing that the current solution will not necessarily hold together, an interesting new approach is being developed. It involves some pretty sophisticated cryptographic programming, as Brett Hemenway and Bill Welser explain (“Insecure Skies” Scientific American, February 2015, pp. 28–29):
“In the 1980s specialists developed algorithms that allowed many people to jointly compute a function on private data without revealing any number of secrets. In 2010 DARPA tasked teams of cryptographers to apply this technology to develop so-called secure multiparty computation (MPC) protocols for satellite data sharing. . . . The [MPC] design guarantees that participants can compute a desired output (for example, the probability of collision) but nothing else. And because the protocol design is public, anyone involved can write their own software client—there would be no need for all parties to trust one another.” (p. 29)
One of the disadvantages to the encrypted process is speed. Using a secured process can take seconds when a nonsecured process can be performed in milliseconds. The expectation is that technology’s speed will come to the rescue.
Let’s hope that happens faster rather than slower. We don’t need any more space debris cluttering the orbital highways or tumbling on our heads.