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Researcher Says Airplanes Can Be Hacked via In-Flight Wi-Fi Systems

Daniel Howley
Technology Reporter
Yahoo Tech
August 6, 2014

Researcher Says Airplanes Can Be Hacked via In-Flight Wi-Fi Systems

Daniel Howley
Technology Reporter
Yahoo Tech
August 6, 2014
Plane soaring through the sky
Plane soaring through the sky

(Thinkstock)

As if flying weren’t already stressful enough — what with the thousands of feet between you and the ground — a security expert now claims that hackers could potentially take control of a plane’s avionics equipment by breaking into its in-flight entertainment and WiFi systems.

According to Ruben Santamarta, a security consultant with the firm IOActive, the communications systems that airplanes use to beam in-flight movies and WiFi to your seat are wide open to attack from hackers with the right amount of knowledge.

In an interview with Reuters, Santamarta, who will be presenting his findings at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference in Las Vegas, explained that the vulnerabilities he uncovered could give a hacker access to functions including a plane’s navigation and safety systems.

Santamarta said that he has, so far, only been able to prove that his hacks work in a lab. Still, he maintains that they could be performed in the real world with relative ease.

But, according to aviation expert, Marisa Garcia, hacking a plane through its inflight entertainment system is essentially impossible. Garcia, who also serves as Skift.com’s aviation editor, said the system’s Santamarta claims to have hacked are data management systems, not flight controls.

"They are encrypted, then encoded. They are useful only to know how the aircraft’s various components perform in-flight," Garcia explained. "It’s a jumble of data of value only to the manufacturer of a particular component. Even airlines can’t make much sense of it, nor do they need to."

Garcia went on to add that aircraft are not networked like computers, accessing one system does not give control to the others.

“Though digital has been entering the skies slowly, it has only done so after critical issues which could compromise the aircraft have been thoroughly analyzed, tested, and satisfactorily addressed,” Garcia said.

“It’s not like anyone in the industry will see this claim from Santamarta and say, ‘Geez! You can access the flight controls through IFC? (In-Flight Connectivity) Why didn’t we think of that?’ “

The makers of the communications satellites that Santamarta claims are so vulnerable to attack, have also refuted the researcher’s findings, saying their systems couldn’t be hacked in the way Santamarta outlined.

Planes aren’t the only mode of transportation at risk of being hacked, though. Even modern cars are vulnerable thanks to their built-in Bluetooth and WiFi connections. In fact, some vehicles can be infiltrated so completely that hackers can take control of everything from the radio to the brakes.

Heck, hackers have been able to take over even smart toilets. So it wouldn’t exactly be a huge surprise if they discovered a way to crack a plane’s WiFi.

So what can you do about such potential security issues? Well, until Santamarta’s research can be proved, you can go back to worrying about whether you got a window or an aisle seat. If he’s correct, though, there would need to be a serious investigation into the safety of these satellite systems.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+ here.