Cyberjacking may be the new threat to air travel

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AviationCyberjacking may be the new threat to air travel

Published 14 July 2015

We accept lengthy queues in airport security as a small price to pay for a couple of weeks in the sun. Could the latest threat to air travel, however, be something that cannot be picked up by metal detectors and X-ray machines? Is cyberjacking — hacking into a plane’s computer systems — a possibility? Researchers warn that it is possible. There is no need to cancel that holiday just yet, however.

When Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished en route to Beijing in March 2014, the horror and mystery of the story captivated the public. And as with any mystery, the lack of a definitive answer left a void for speculation and conspiracy theories. Was the aircraft shot down? Was it hijacked and flown to an unknown location? Was the plane’s computer system somehow hacked allowing it to be controlled remotely?

A City release reports that it was this latter theory that most interested David Stupples of City University of London’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Stupples is an expert in networked electronic systems and, prior to becoming an academic, spent many years developing military surveillance systems for the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. He also designed secure communications for surveillance satellites and air defense systems for the Hughes Aircraft Corporation.

The MH370 mystery got him thinking: was it possible to “cyberjack” a civilian aircraft? If so, are we at the beginning of a new and terrifying era for commercial air travel?

To answer these questions, it is useful to look at how aircraft have evolved. In the 1970s the U.S government developed the F-117 fighter plane, the first designed around stealth technology and therefore undetectable by radar. Unfortunately, the design made the aircraft aerodynamically unstable: the only way it could be flown was if it had a computer on board

The computer flies the plane
By the 1990s, Airbus had introduced computers on commercial aircraft and today, with the introduction of the firm’s 318, 319, and 320 series, its planes are now almost totally computer controlled. As Stupples says: “The pilot flies the computer and the computer flies the plane.”

Today’s modern aircraft have numerous systems, including those for flight controls, automatic pilot, navigation, communication, engine management and even passenger entertainment. If these systems can be accessed by anyone with malevolent intentions, the consequences could be disastrous.

In recent years there have been numerous cyberjacking scare stories. In 2008, for example, the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) reported that the computer network in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner passenger compartment was connected to the aircraft’s control, navigation and communication systems. This grave security concern was subsequently resolved by Boeing.

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