Computer Expert Hacked into Plane and Made it Fly Sideways: FBI

19 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Experts: Plane hack through infotainment box seems unlikely.

SAN FRANCISCO — Computer and aviation experts say it seems unlikely a Denver-based cyber-security researcher was able to compromise a jet’s controls via its in-flight entertainment system, making it bank briefly to one side.

U.S. law enforcement officials have no credible evidence that commercial airplane cockpits have been hacked from passengers’ seats, contradicting a man who claims he did just that.The FBI is stepping up its investigation of a computer security expert who joked on Twitter about airplane security vulnerabilities, saying he may have previously taken control of a plane. While most airplanes can’t be hacked because flight-control computers are separate from the connections passengers use, newer aircraft have more interconnections, the U.S. Chris Roberts was detained for questioning by the FBI after a flight in April, during which he sent a tweet joking that he could take control of the plane he was on by hacking into its Wi-Fi system.

Apparently, the FBI’s interest was not sparked solely by the tweet, but also by answers that Roberts had given during an interview in February, according to the Canadian news outlet APTN. The allegation that Mr Roberts said he had affected the actual performance the plane was made in an FBI affidavit applying for a warrant to search his computer, iPad and other electronic items that were confiscated by investigators after the tweeting incident. Security experts say they can’t imagine the airlines and FAA aren’t aware if Roberts was in fact able to illegally access planes control systems “15 to 20 times,” as he told FBI agents when he spoke with them earlier this year. “Pilots know what’s happening with their planes from the smallest maintenance issue up to anything serious,” said Rob Sadowski, director of marketing for RSA, the world’s largest computer security conference. Roberts is well known and respected in the security industry and speaks at multiple conferences on various security topics, including aircraft security, said Sadowski.

Roberts has consistently maintained that he never actually took control of an airplane outside of computer simulations, though he did acknowledge accessing IFE’s on at least 15 occasions to explore and observe data traffic as part of his research into potential vulnerabilities. Roberts spoke at the most recent RSA conference in April. “As someone in the industry who looks at the design of systems like this, I would find it very hard to believe that these systems were not isolated,” he said. The official asked not to be named because an investigation is continuing into Roberts’s claims of tampering, which would be illegal under federal law. Roberts, while on a United Airlines flight to Chicago on April 15, said via social media that he might “start playing” with a computer system that monitors the engines and other systems. Mr Roberts admitted to investigators accessing plane computers systems more than a dozen times since 2011, accessing the systems by attaching an ethernet cable directly to the “Seat Electronic Box” that can be found under some seats, according to Wired Magazine. “That paragraph that’s in there is one paragraph out of a lot of discussions, so there is context that is obviously missing which obviously I can’t say anything about,” he said. “It would appear from what I’ve seen that the federal guys took one paragraph out of a lot of discussions and a lot of meetings and notes and just chose that one as opposed to plenty of others.” Following the media interest in the potential that a plane could be hacked in-flight, United Airlines last week launched a “bug bounty” programme offering up to a million free air-miles to so-called White Knight – friendly – hackers who could uncover weaknesses in their corporate computer systems.

Agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation detained Roberts after he got off a separate flight the same day in Syracuse, New York, and seized his Apple MacBook Pro, iPad and various external hard drives and USB drives. During questioning, Roberts bragged about his ability to hack into the seatback entertainment systems in order to access more sensitive avionics systems, according to an affidavit filed April 17 by Special Agent Mark Hurley. Boeing’s entertainment computers receive some data from other aircraft computers, but are isolated from critical aircraft electronics, the company said in a statement.

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