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12 April 20131 Comment by Jon M

Hacking planes with phones

aeroplaneNew research suggests that passenger jets could potentially be “hacked” with little more than a mobile phone. The disturbing news comes from security research and former pilot Hugo Teso who works in Mainz, Germany. The exploit shows how a hacker could actually influence the movement of a commercial airliner.

Teso presented his research at the Hack In The Box conference held in Amsterdam, Netherlands this week. His exploit involves the use of a Android smartphone app called PlainSploit which allows him to control the aircraft’s Flight Management Systems.

Modern aeroplanes have two major systems for communicating with other aircraft and with ground-based air traffic controllers:

The Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), sends information about each aircraft (identification, current position, altitude, and so on) through an on-board transmitter to air traffic controllers, and allows aircraft equipped with the technology to receive flight, traffic and weather information about other aircraft currently in the air in their vicinity.

The Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), is used to exchange messages between aircraft and air traffic controllers via radio or satellite, as well as to automatically deliver information about each flight phase to the latter.

The problem is that these technologies are old and dated and, as a result, incredibly insecure. Using both together, an attacker can gather information for a aeroplane’s on-board computer and even spoof signals that allow a hacker to affect the behaviour of the aircraft. Teso has developed an entire framework that allows you to control a ‘plane’s Flight Management System – it’s so complete there’s even scope for adding your own custom plug-ins.

Using live flight trackers such as Flightradar24, you can even hack into any aeroplane that is in range of your phone. The app is very advanced and you can dynamically change the aircraft’s course simply by tapping on a location on a map. You can also set conditional filters that will only activate when certain requirements are met. For example, you can wait until an aircraft is in its cruise phase over the ocean or above a certain ASL altitude and the crew are relaxing to activate certain commands. One of the most interesting features is that you can even control the lights and alarms in the aeroplane and the “Be Punkish” command allows a hacker to trigger lots of these at once. There’s even a humorously named “Visit Ground” command which caused the ‘plane to crash.

Don’t worry too much though next time you get on a flight. Each model of plan is different and only some commands will work on each one even though the app and framework does have a way of detecting what’s available. The other thing is that these commands only work when the ‘plane is set to autopilot so the pilots can always get complete control back and then flying using manual analogue control inputs. Most importantly, of course, Teso hasn’t publicly released the mechanism for all the exploits and has been working with the aviation industry to close the security flaws that allow this hack. The framework he developed was purposely restricted to virtual environments and cannot be used on real-life ‘planes.

However, having said that, on more modern digitised aeroplanes, it’s harder to detect the hacking in the first place and it’s uncommon to fly a plane without any automated assistance. And it’s certainly rather terrifying to learn how poor the security is on all these legacy systems. This is especially the case as aviation is an industry that prides itself on the importance of safety and security as well as redundant systems. Luckily, it does seem that manufacturers are keen to work on fixing the holes in their systems.

What do you make of this crazy story? Are you scared that people could control your flight with just a mobile phone? Why do you think that aircraft security is so poor? And do you expect to see more stories similar to this in the future? Let us know your thoughts below.

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One Response to “Hacking planes with phones”

  1. Mobile Network Comparison 16 January 2014 at 15:48 Permalink

    Here’s the paper that came out of this research.

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