Airliner Flight Control Hacks Likely More Feasible Than We Might Wish

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2015-05-18 Print this article Print
Flight Control Hack

Also located within the aircraft are ports used to access the flight management systems and other data systems for maintenance. Did Roberts find one of those Ethernet ports, perhaps located within the same box? I don't know the answer to that, but if I were the airline security staff, that's the first place I'd look.

Of course it's also possible that the security on the entertainment system is so bad that Roberts was able to get in using the on-board WiFi or the USB connector that's usually located under each seat.

But whatever the means that Roberts used, I think that while it's easy and comforting to say that he couldn't possibly have hacked into an airplane’s systems, it's also likely to be whistling in the dark.

I think that given Roberts' reputation, it also is probably true. I suspect that once someone decides to stop playing silly power games and ensures that Roberts isn't prosecuted, we'll find out exactly what happened.

It's worth knowing that whatever the airlines say about their internal systems isn't necessarily accurate. For example, I've seen the United Airlines WiFi system used to make voice phone calls, even though United says that it's impossible. And I observed that this can be done without violating the airline restriction on using the cellular communications in flight. And, no, I'm not going to tell you how this was done, just that I've seen it and it is possible.

The fact is that the data systems being carried on board most airplanes these days are sufficiently complex that I suspect that the airlines don't actually know all the details about how they're interconnected.

Partly this is because important systems, including the entertainment systems are actually provided by third parties and are frequently integrated into the airframe by another third party. That third party may be the manufacturer such as Boeing or it may be another contractor.

In addition, there are conflicting demands that arise on airplanes. On one hand, the airlines want to do away with most of the entertainment systems you're used to seeing and require you to use your tablet or laptop instead as a way to save weight and cut costs.

In addition, the demand by customers for ever more sophisticated information and entertainment capabilities means that the airlines have to put networks and Internet access in the hands of the public, which adds to the risk. In fact, the complexity has become so great that one airline, United, is asking for help in cleaning up its website, but not yet its flight systems.

So are all of the security experts who say that hacking an airliner is impossible correct? I don't think so. On the other hand, it really is impossible for a hacker to get control of the aircraft and fly it if the pilot doesn't want him to because airliners are required to have analog back up flight controls and instruments and nobody can hack those.



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