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Can an aircraft be hacked?

Can an aircraft be hacked?November 22, 2019

Can an aircraft be hacked?
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Airplanes are flying IT systems. In addition to the flight systems that are responsible for navigation and control, there are also downstream systems such as the entertainment system. But every network represents a potential security risk and thus also a target for a hacker attack.

Such an attack could have fatal consequences, such as the failure of breathing masks or a collision with an obstacle or even a crash. Is IT security on board protected against external attacks?

Nowadays, airplanes are controlled by complex computer systems that are all networked: Control signals and other data are sent from the ground to the computer in the aircraft. In aviation computers have become indispensable. Aircraft are navigated with IT, the pilot communicates with flight safety via technology, and guests also benefit from the systems. The Entertainment systems make the flight much more comfortable for the guests.

The problem with IT security in aircraft is, among other things, the expensive maintenance of the systems. Many commercial aircraft remain in operation for between 15 and 20 years – their software is often ten years old. At least compared to today’s standards for smartphones or other devices, computer systems in airplanes are therefore very outdated.

However, ageing systems do not pose a major risk to general security. Soft- and hardware are well-rehearsed teams that can easily cope with hundreds of thousands of hours in the air. This is one of the reasons why the aircraft is one of the safest means of transport.

Specialists criticize that there is currently no central way to detect attempted attacks. This could help to find security gaps more quickly and to adapt the systems of all affected aircraft accordingly. A further point of criticism is the security concepts of the aircraft industry. Here security is to be guaranteed by the pure secrecy of the mode of operation.

There are rumours of hackers who have already hacked into aircraft security systems. There was also a security expert who wanted to draw attention to the security gaps in the systems with his actions. The hacker is said to have connected to the technology in the aircraft with a LAN cable and, among other things, had access to the turbines and breathing masks. The aircraft manufacturer Boeing considers this to be unlikely because the on-board electronics and entertainment systems operate separately. In addition, the crew should notice if someone removes the fairing under their seat. So what is the truth about the rumours that aircraft could be hacked?

Theoretically and practically, an aircraft can only be hacked if the hacker is on board. Only here can the hacker have direct access to the relevant computer systems. They communicate with each other via LAN cables. To gain access via the cable, however, the hacker would have to remove the casing of the relevant components. Access to the entertainment system via WLAN is not possible.

Less relevant systems for flight safety are, for example, the “Information Management On-Board”, which displays weather data and information via WLAN connections. Although it is protected by a firewall, this protection can of course be overcome. What a hacker does with the information and how he should crash an airplane remains questionable. However, if he penetrates deeper into the system via the “Information Management On-Board”, there is a high risk. Here, however, he must be familiar with the protocols and data and be able to interpret them in order to cause damage. According to Boeing, “no change in the flight sequence can be loaded into the aircraft’s system without the pilot seeing and agreeing. In any case, the pilot has the last word.

In theory, hacker attacks in airplanes are not impossible. The high safety standards of aviation make the experiments immensely difficult. The fact that the pilot ultimately decides what happens on board is very reassuring.

If one wants to assume responsibility for flight safety then training as an Airline Pilot is the best way and what better option than to do it in Panamedia.

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