Researcher Hacks Plane, Takes Control: FBI

Tuesday, May 19, 2015 @ 03:05 PM gHale

The idea of flying in a cyber world just got a little scarier as a security researcher said it is possible to hack into the controls of a flying aircraft and take over.

That is exactly what happened when researcher Chris Roberts told a FBI agent he was able to take the helm and make the aircraft climb.

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Roberts is the founder of One World Labs, a cyber security company dedicated to identifying risks before the bad guys manage to take advantage of them.

He has often drawn attention to the vulnerabilities present in the computer networks in airplanes, which could end up exploited in flight to reach the avionics systems and tamper with the control of the aircraft.

In mid-April, while flying from Denver to Chicago and then onto Syracuse, NY, Roberts tweeted a message as a joke, saying he would check the security of the airplane by accessing the EICAS (engine-indicating and crew-alerting system) via the in-flight entertainment (IFE) network.

As a result, the researcher spent some time with the FBI when he disembarked in Syracuse. Four hours later, he was let go, but not with his electronic devices as the FBI confiscated them.

This was not Roberts’ first sit down with the FBI. Between February 13 and March 5, the agents interviewed the researcher multiple times to learn about the vulnerabilities he discovered in the IFE systems on Boeing and Airbus aircrafts.

According to a search warrant obtained by special agent Mark Hurley, Roberts admitted he had exploited glitches while in flight.

The document said between 2011 and 2014, the researcher experimented approximately 15 to 20 times and the breach point was the video monitor installed in the passenger seatbacks (Seat Electronic Box).

After hacking into the IFE network via a laptop hooked with a Cat6 Ethernet cable, Roberts was able to access other systems on the aircraft.

While aboard the flight, he was able to overwrite the code on the plane’s Thrust Management Computer and issue a “climb” command. This resulted in the aircraft changing direction and move sideways.

“Because this affidavit is being submitted for the limited purpose of securing a search warrant, I have not included each and every fact known to me concerning this investigation,” Hurley said in the document.

The flying public needs to understand hacking into a plane’s system is not something anyone can do. Rather, it can occur when someone with a strong technical background and special tools.

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