FBI claims security researcher took control of plane

17 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Airlines sceptical commercial planes can be ‘hacked’.

A hacker and security researcher claims to have taken control over a Boeing 737-800 commercial flight after breaking in through the entertainment system. Chris Roberts, who runs a cybersecurity consulting firm, told FBI agents in Syracuse in April that he pulled off the stunt by wiring a laptop computer into a jetliner’s entertainment system during a flight, Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network reported. A prominent hacker has told the FBI that he managed to make an airliner “climb” and move “sideways” after infiltrating its in-flight entertainment system. Chris Roberts, the founder of the security firm One World Labs, was kicked off a United Airlines flight in April after a ‘tweet threat’ to make the flight computer deploy the cabin oxygen masks.

Photo: Fox News Figures in the Australian aviation industry are sceptical whether it is possible to ‘hack in’ to the cockpit of a plane, after an American man allegedly told the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) he had taken control of a plane’s engines with his laptop. Roberts has also claimed to find key vulnerabilities in the computer systems of other popular commercial planes such as the Boeing, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A-320. 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. United Airlines explained their ban saying: ‘Given Mr Roberts’ claims regarding manipulating aircraft systems, we’ve decided it’s in the best interest of our customers and crew members that he not be allowed to fly United. Once inside the plane’s system, the document says, he was able to access information from the cockpit on three models of Boeing aircraft and the Airbus A320, and in one case sent a command to the engine’s thruster that caused the plane to move sideways.

Roberts has replied to critics stating that he was looking to help airlines close loopholes in their security systems and that his comments have been taken ‘out of context’. He stated that he thereby caused one of the aeroplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights,” the affidavit said. “He also stated that he used Vortex software after compromising/exploiting or ‘hacking’ the aeroplane’s networks.

But despite Roberts’ assurances his only motivation in researching vulnerabilities in aircrafts was to improve security, Australian aviators have doubts the “hack” he detailed to the FBI works. 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. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority, a government agency which oversees the safety of Australian aircraft, said the prospect of remotely controlling a plane was “unrealistic”. “These are issues that would be addressed by the manufacturers of the aircraft – Boeing and Airbus – in conjunction with the aviation regulators that first certified the aircraft – the FAA and EASA.” Steve Jackson, Qantas Group head of security, facilitation and resilience, said the airline had “extremely stringent” measures in places that were “more than enough” to stop someone hacking in. “The Qantas Group has extremely stringent security measures in place which are continually reviewed as part of normal business practice – these are measures that are more than enough to mitigate any attempt at remote interference with aircraft systems. “The Qantas Group complies with, and in many cases exceeds, all regulatory requirements and manufacturers’ recommendations when it comes to the safety and security of our fleet.” Budget airline Tigerair Australia does not have in-flight entertainment equipment, so the airline would not comment on the hacking specifically, but said they also had high standards of security. “Tigerair Australia has strict and comprehensive procedures in place to ensure the highest levels of safety and security in-flight are maintained at all times,” a spokeswoman said. Washington: Penn State University, which develops sensitive technology for the US Navy, said on Fridaythat Chinese hackers have been sifting through the computers of its engineering school for more than two years. US engineering schools – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the California Institute of Technology, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and Johns Hopkins – have been among the top targets of Chinese hacking and other intelligence operations for many years.

These forays have been for both commercial and defence purposes, and universities have struggled to secure their computers against these advanced attacks. In addition to online activities, the Chinese have sent legions of graduate students to US schools and have tried to recruit students, faculty members and others at both universities and government research facilities, several recent law-enforcement investigations show. “There is an active threat and it is against not just Penn State but against many different organisations across the world, including higher education institutions,” said Nick Bennett, a senior manager at Mandiant, a security division of FireEye Inc., which aided the university in the investigation.

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