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Can Planes Be Hijacked by Android Phone?
Can Planes Be Hijacked by Android Phone?

By Barry Levine
April 12, 2013 2:14PM

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The Android phone hijack claim is not the first warning that cyber-terrorism could be launched remotely against aircraft. Last summer, two presentations at a Black Hat and Defcon security conference said a new system for tracking and control of aircraft in the U.S. and other countries has insufficient encryption to prevent a terrorist from creating false plane information.
 



It sounds like part of a Bruce Willis action movie: A hacker takes remote control of a commercial aircraft, using only an Android smartphone. A German security researcher said this week it can be done, but the Federal Aviation Administration is denying the claim.

The researcher, Hugo Teso, works for German IT company n.runs and is also a commercial pilot. At the Hack in the Box security conference this week in Amsterdam, he explained that transmissions to commercial aircraft can be hijacked, thus hijacking the aircraft.

The protocol of the transmissions is ACARS, or the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System. Teso said a hacker can take advantage of security vulnerabilities in ACARS, as well as vulnerabilities in flight management software from Honeywell and other aircraft technology companies. To take control, Teso created an Android app called PlaneSploit that exploits these vulnerabilities to talk to the aircraft's Flight Management Systems.

'Lot of Nasty Things'

Teso said his app can direct the plane to change direction, altitude, speed, and can change the data on pilots' screens. He told Forbes magazine that "you can use this system to modify approximately everything related to the navigation of the plane," including "a lot of nasty things."

This is not the first warning that cyber-terrorism could be launched remotely against aircraft. Last summer, two presentations at the Black Hat and Defcon security conference in Las Vegas said a new system for tracking and control of aircraft in the U.S. and other countries, which is being rolled out over the next few years, has insufficient encryption to prevent a terrorist from creating false plane information.

This could swamp air traffic controllers with fake status reports from fake aircraft, preventing them from guiding actual aircraft to safe landings because they wouldn't known which ones were real. One of the security researchers at the Black Hat conference, Andrei Costin, had reported that even "a medium-technical savvy person" could impersonate a plane that wasn't there.

Honeywell, FAA Dispute Findings

Some of the companies that developed the aircraft flight management software dispute Teso's claims.

Honeywell said that, although it will work with n.runs to assess the vulnerabilities, Teso's work does not necessarily prove there is risk because his experimentations over three years were on Flight Management Systems hardware he bought on eBay, and used FMS training simulation software that claims it has some of the same code as in actual commercial aircraft. A Honeywell spokesperson told Forbes the training simulation software "doesn't have the same protections against overwriting or corrupting as our certified flight software."

In reply, n.runs said the vulnerabilities were not in the FMS software that was being tested, but in actual aircraft functions, and that the hack would require only minimum adaptation to work on an actual plane.

Similarly, the FAA, the European Aviation Safety Administration, and aircraft technology company Rockwell Collins have released statements that current systems are secure and are not equivalent to Teso's lab environment.
 

Tell Us What You Think
Comment:

Name:

Kevin:

Posted: 2013-04-23 @ 10:27am PT
yep. I want to see some proofs, stop talking gibberish.

Robert:

Posted: 2013-04-16 @ 5:16pm PT
If there are vulnerabilities... let's see them in action... all of this is just talk.



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