Researchers Say Commercial Airlines are at Risk of Being Hacked
Researchers at several governments agencies including the Department of Homeland Security announced that modern airplanes are at severe risk of cyberattacks from criminals. In documents obtained by Motherboard, comments by several research labs warn that hacking a plane could lead to a “catastrophic disaster”, building on research in which a Homeland Security research team successfully hacked a Boeing 737.
The documents show that the US government anticipate what would happen in the event of an aircraft hack, and how planes have little safeguards in place that could protect them from hacks in the first place. A portion of the documents show a presentation put together by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a research group part of the Department of Energy. Earlier this year, the lab conducted research that attempted to hack a plane via its WiFi internet service.
According to the presentation, dated January 10, 2018, it suggests that the lab succeeded in part was successful in accessing “actionable and unauthorized presence on one or more on-board systems.” However, a further slide details that they were unable to fully assimilate into the planes on-board systems, begging the question of how simulated the experimental attack was.
Nevertheless, the research is quite clear about one thing: planes are at risk of a cyber-attack. “Potential of catastrophic disaster is inherently greater in an airborne vehicle”, it states. In another section, it states that it’s just “a matter of time before a cyber security breach on an airline occurs.”
In a 2016 Department of Homeland Security warned that the agency anticipated a “significant reluctance by the commercial world to expand resources to prevent penetration & attack.” In the event that an attack occurred, it would result in considerable trouble for the entire airline industry. A cyberattack would trigger extreme damage to aircraft, but would also “create conditions where public perceives there is risk to aircraft operations.” In addition, the DHS says it could cause a disruption to the operation of commercial and military flights, along with other companies and players within the industry.
John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at cybersecurity firm FireEye, told Motherboard, “In the instances where we have seen targeting of airports, the targeting was done by actors who we believe were carrying out reconnaissance for attack. Airlines have been targeted as well. The information they have could be valuable to an actor seeking to identify and track persons of interest.” He included, “We have no information suggesting there has been any attempt by nation state actors to hijack or manipulate airplanes. Even if such a thing were possible, the repercussions from such an operation would probably dissuade the most sophisticated nation states.”