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Grey hats and blue skies, dealing with airline security

Vincenzo Marsden | Oct. 14, 2016
Airline security in the 21st century will have to address hacking and physical threats.


Whether hacks are correlated between individuals and foreign government agencies is difficult to determine without transparency, but future hacks on airlines and government aircraft security systems is guaranteed.

A cyberattack which is successful against air traffic control systems would be absolutely devastating and could easily result in the loss of lives...

Nathan Wenzler, principal security architect at AsTech Consulting

Airport security screening, which has been discussed at length for the past several years, is still flawed and does not truly bring a significant level of security to the table, explained Nathan Wenzler, principal security architect at AsTech Consulting. He's also concerned about the security posture and the resiliency of the air traffic control systems being used today.

"There are, of course, efforts underway to bring the entire system into a new, next generation platform, but initial looks at what the government is proposing reveal that much of the technology will still be outdated and insufficient to not just handle the projected traffic increases in the next 20 years, but do not address a number of security concerns I would have about that system. There are too many single points of failure, and ways of ensuring continuity of service for aircraft in flight are not as easy to solve as even the proposed system would provide."

Lessons from the past and promises for the future

Along each new advancement in aviation security, comes new advancements in black hat technologies and techniques. While Wi-Fi is currently being implemented across commercial airliners by way of network connected nodes, cloud based systems are almost never used on-board airplanes due to concerns over cloud-based vulnerabilities.

Instead, current technologies throughout commercial and governmental aircraft alike rely on satellite communications, VHF shortwave communications systems, Vertical Fin antennas, as well as varied radio frequencies to relay information to and from air traffic control towers on the ground.

Flight controls rely on analog, Actuator Control Electronics (ACE), and the Primary Flight Computer (PFC), which utilizes digital technology. Fly-By-Wire (FBW)  systems rely on electronic computers to communicate with the airplanes hydraulics and move the rudders, wing flaps and elevator; all these systems are extremely difficult to hack without installing a secondary device to access their Local Area Networks.

That being said, on April 15, 2015, while on-board a commercial flight, Chris Roberts, a security expert and chief security architect at Acalvio Technologies tweeted:

"Find myself on a 737/800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM, ?  Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? "PASS OXYGEN ON" Anyone ? :)"

"Roberts later claimed in a statement to the FBI he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights,” The FBI stated in their warrant application.


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