Aviation security: Playing with fire

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Aviation is one of the busiest and most advanced industries in the world, which is why it’s also poised to be vulnerable to cyber threats. Many airport systems are highly interconnected, resulting in an ultimately fragile network that could collapse if a single system is compromised.

Unlike many other industries, an aviation security breach may not just result in lost productivity or dollars (the average cost of a data breach has reached a whopping $3.6 million for 2020), it can also result in human injury or death.

Because of its nature and the danger a breach could represent, the cybersecurity landscape for aviation is of particular importance to everyone. Modern, holistic security solutions will be needed for aviation cybersecurity in the future, especially as cyber attacks become more sophisticated.

With the rise of automation and the proliferation of botnet attacks, it may be that aviation cybersecurity is in a more dire situation than many currently realize.

The Role Cybersecurity Plays in Aviation

Aviation as an industry today relies heavily on digital communication and interconnected systems, any of which can be breached from a cyber attack.

Currently, the aviation industry relies on computers and digital technology to:

  • Handle passenger assignments
  • Outline flight plans for pilots and other aviation personnel
  • Help air traffic controllers relay positions to pilots
  • Keep travel infrastructure running throughout an airport
  • Track the baggage of travelers
  • Run a myriad of systems within the airport
  • Fly actual aircraft, which rely on a multitude of automated and electronic systems

There are more aspects of aviation cyber development than the above, but it's enough to illustrate just how much airlines rely on modern technology to perform their daily business.

This isn’t unique to aviation, of course. Many other modern industries also rely on digital tools and integrated networks to help the multitude of customers who use these services every day. But unlike many other industries, aviation is an industry where there is a higher likelihood of human safety being compromised in the event of a cybersecurity attack.

All it would take is a single breach for an airport’s air traffic control tower to go down. This would not only cause chaos economically but it could easily result in a terrible accident. Because of this inherent risk, aviation cybersecurity is a critical subject and one that cybersecurity experts have been looking at more closely.

Why Aviation Cybersecurity is Difficult

Aviation cybersecurity is extremely difficult to ensure for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, aviation and aerospace systems have to be adaptable enough to work with real-time modification and human behavior. They must also be incredibly reliable, because human lives are at risk any time an airplane takes flight.

Because of this, many aviation digital systems and software programs are incredibly complex. A single piece of avionic software might have close to one billion lines of code. This complexity is indeed necessary for the entire aviation industry to work properly, but it presents a unique difficulty for any cybersecurity expert.

How can you defend such a complex system from a cyber attack when there might be hundreds or thousands of potential exploits?

Things Have Gotten Harder

In recent years, the aviation industry has even become more vulnerable to cyber attacks. The industry has also increased its reliance on the interoperation of multiple systems; this makes it easier for a hacker to enter one system but get access to the whole lot.

Additionally, many airlines are using commercial software or digital solutions that can be purchased and understood by non-aviation employees, such as third-party time tracking and HR applications. This makes many of their systems vulnerable to attack purely because a would-be hacker can be already familiar with the software used by an airline.

To make things worse, you can now get airline tickets from a huge breadth of purchasing websites, some of which integrate to airline networks directly. The problem is that many websites allow access to ticketing databases (and thus provide a window for potential hackers). Many of these third-party sites aren’t even encrypted with an https address, along with eschewing other basic security measures.

Another issue is how some airlines allow pilots to bring their own devices into the cockpit. This also creates potential security gaps for hackers. Compromised phones or tablets that enter the cockpit may be able to scoop information from an aircraft’s system, providing it to a hacker later once the aircraft has landed.

All in all, it’s likely that cybersecurity will become a more difficult challenge in the future rather than becoming more manageable. It will, out of necessity, need to have a more concrete presence in future digital developments.

Aviation Cybersecurity Solutions

So, what are the best ways to tackle aviation cybersecurity?

At the moment, cybersecurity experts for the aviation industry are taking several steps to provide as much safety as possible. The Pentagon, Department of Transportation, and many aviation companies are thoroughly assessing their infrastructure, both manually and digitally.

Remember that cyber attacks are not just possible through the internet these days. The Internet of Things, which comprises physical products and services that connect to the Internet, are also vulnerable access points for hackers. Therefore, any aviation company or airline will need to assess practically every aspect of their operation.

Penetration testing is especially necessary, as it’s not just enough to put a software patch over a potential vulnerability. The best way, some think, to determine where a hacker might try to get into a system is to put yourself in the shoes of that hacker.

Upgrades to web hosting services or how airlines administer their servers may need to be examined. Many popular UK web hosting providers are not located in the UK, but rather use server farms in Central and Eastern Europe for data storage. As more and more data moves to the cloud for better security, cross-border hosting and IT will continue to be both an opportunity - and a challenge - for companies relying on cloud services.

Insider threat is another thing to take into account. An insider threat is one where an employee of an aviation company or organization accidentally provides a hacker with the clearance for access point necessary to get into the system.

All aviation companies and airlines should periodically test their employees and ensure continuous improvement on this point. This is particularly important since many people don’t even follow good password protocol for their personal or work devices. Even fewer make use of password protectors or managers to generate and store strong passwords for them.

Many airlines and aviation organizations are also considering micro-segmentation, by which they will provide employees or industry members with separate privileges to ensure that as few people as possible have access to the entirety of an aviation network or system. This idea can also extend to actual systems, by preventing as much interoperation as has been running rampant in recent years.

Finally, AI and machine learning may have applications pertaining to aviation cybersecurity. Machine learning models may be able to direct cybersecurity experts to protect against any cyber threats, as well as countering artificial intelligence developments by potential hackers themselves.

When it comes to the future of aviation cybersecurity, it has become clear the old ways of dealing with cyber threats have proven to not be effective enough given the changed hacking landscape.

Innovation and dedication to comprehensive security are just the first steps to real safety; it’s likely the aviation industry will have to shift more than many are comfortable with to facilitate a truly safe network for each airport in the world.

The time the aviation industry has to fix its cybersecurity is running short, and the stakes are higher for this industry than arguably any other. But with innovative solutions and a willingness to change, there may yet be hope for true airline security in the future.

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