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Are commercial planes in danger of being hacked?

May 18, 20154 mins
Network Security

A controversy has erupted over claims that a security researcher hacked the avionics systems of a commercial airline through its in-flight entertainment system. Many security experts dismiss the story as simply ludicrous, but some believe it’s possible—and that is cause for very serious concern.

I can understand why security experts jump to the conclusion that the story is BS. I’ve been a CISSP-ISSAP for 13 years. Prior to making the switch to full-time tech analyst and writer I worked in the trenches as a security consultant. I agree completely that anyone who knows anything about networks or network security should know better than to put the flight controls and avionics on the same network as the passenger-facing entertainment system. It’s insane.

It seems safe to assume that whoever airplane manufacturers or commercial airlines employed to architect and implement the network infrastructure knows a thing or two about network infrastructure. Logically, this leads to the assumption that nobody put in charge of designing the network infrastructure of a commercial aircraft would in any way connect or merge the network architecture of the passenger systems with the flight controls.

Unfortunately, as security experts dig deeper into this debate they are discovering that it may actually be possible.

“While it is known that Chris Roberts used a modified Ethernet cable to hack into the entertainment system on commercial airlines multiple times, it is unclear how far he actually was able to laterally move through the systems,” says Morey Haber, VP of Technology for BeyondTrust. “Reports claim he was able to modify the engines thrust causing airplane movement but that may have just been coincidental turbulence. That is truly unknown until more details (if ever) are released.”

JJ Thompson, founder and CEO of Rook Security, delved into patent diagrams and data bus specifications for onboard flight systems and came away with some alarming conclusions. “I am concerned that a connection could be made from the passenger seat / inflight entertainment (IFE) via the onboard router to the open data network domain and onto the flight deck and / or avionic domains if the system routers and firewalls are misconfigured. The FBI cyber task force needs to be given full access to conduct an investigation into this matter immediately.”

“I had a chance to actually read through some of the FBI request for search warrant that details the investigation,” explained Grayson Milbourne, security intelligence director for Webroot. “Based on reading this, I think there is a more than likely chance that Chris Roberts was in fact able to hack into these planes.”

Milbourne respects that Roberts is attempting to act as an evangelist for these issues. To be fair, it’s generally unreasonable to attack the security researcher who brings crucial security issues to light. If Roberts was able to discover flaws that enable him to move laterally from the passenger facing systems to the avionics and flight controls, then it’s safe to assume that others can discover that design flaw as well—and those others might not be so quick to make it known to the public.

Still, many are adamantly opposed to Roberts methods and reject the public disclosure of these issues as a significant danger.

Haber says, “As for the researcher, he is not doing anyone any favors by hacking systems without permission and disclosing his findings publicly without using proper disclosure ethics. If his findings are real, proper due diligence would have been in order and not made public – yet. It is hackers like this, that claim to be helping us, that can expose real problems without any form of mitigation. This leaves us open to an attack if they are true.”

Thompson is also quite clear on his feelings. “The “researcher” in question recklessly endangered lives through his actions, which is not commensurate with the generally accepted code of ethics in the information security community, and he should be held accountable for his poor decisions.”

Airlines need to immediately cut off the inflight entertainment systems and disconnect passenger access until a full investigation can be conducted. There is absolutely no excuse for having the passenger network and flight controls connected in any way whatsoever. If it isn’t possible to deliver in-flight entertainment without putting the plane and its passengers at risk then the systems should simply be removed. It won’t be the end of the world if passengers can’t watch DirecTV during a flight. It will be the end of the world—at least for those passengers—if someone hacks the avionics and crashes the plane.


Tony is principal analyst with the Bradley Strategy Group, providing analysis and insight on tech trends. He is a prolific writer on a range of technology topics, has authored a number of books, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.