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Security researcher's hack caused airplane to climb, FBI asserts

Jeremy Kirk | May 19, 2015
The FBI contends a cybersecurity researcher said he caused an airplane's engine to climb after hacking its software, according to a court document.

The FBI contends a cybersecurity researcher said he caused an airplane's engine to climb after hacking its software, according to a court document.

The researcher, Chris Roberts, was questioned by the FBI on April 15 after he wrote a tweet that suggested he was probing aircraft systems on a United Airlines flight he took earlier that day.

The FBI interviewed him after he flew into Syracuse, New York, and seized his electronics. Two days later, the agency then filed an application for a search warrant to examine Roberts' gear, which has been published in federal court records.

The application contains rich detail describing three of the agency's interviews with Roberts, who is co-founder and CTO of the security company One World Labs in Colorado. He has not been charged with a crime, although United Airlines banned him from flying on its planes.

It is not clear when the incident involving the airplane's engine occurred or if the plane might have been in danger as the result of it.

On Sunday, Roberts wrote on Twitter that "Over last five years my only interest has been to improve aircraft security...given the current situation I've been advised against saying much." Roberts is being represented by Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cardozo said Roberts was not available to comment beyond what he wrote on Twitter.

One of Roberts' specialties is investigating security flaws in aircraft systems, which the U.S. government has warned could endanger flight safety if not configured correctly.

Regarding the engine incident, Special Agent Mark S. Hurley wrote in the warrant application that Roberts said he connected his laptop to the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system through the Seat Electronic Box (SEB), which is located under some passenger seats.

After hacking the IFE system, he gained access to other systems on the plane, Hurley wrote.

Roberts "stated that he then overwrote code on the airplane's Thrust Management Computer while aboard a flight," Hurley wrote. "He stated that he successfully commanded the system he had accessed to issue the 'CLB' or climb command."

One of the airplane's engines began to climb, "resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights," the warrant application said.

Hurley wrote that Roberts said he had compromised IFE systems 15 to 20 times from 2011 through 2014.

Roberts allegedly said he compromised IFE systems made by Thales and Panasonic with video monitors installed at the back of passenger seats, Hurley wrote.

Roberts' problems started on April 15 when he wrote a tweet that suggested he was probing aircraft systems on a United Airlines flight from Denver to Chicago on a 737/800.

 

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