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Hackers’ Newest Target: Airplanes

Wi-Fi is giving hackers an entry point to attack airplane computers, creating the potential for disaster.

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The newest terrorist threat to planes? Wi-Fi.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has concluded that cyberthreats are the latest risk -- and potentially the hardest to find -- to airlines. That’s because hackers increasingly may be able to access air traffic control systems and avionics that operate and guide planes that use Wi-Fi to fly.

“Internet connectivity in the cabin should be considered a direct link between the aircraft and the outside world, which includes potential malicious actors,” the new report found.

The newest terrorist threat to planes? Wi-Fi.

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has concluded that cyberthreats are the latest risk — and potentially the hardest to find — to airlines. That’s because hackers increasingly may be able to access air traffic control systems and avionics that operate and guide planes that use Wi-Fi to fly.

“Internet connectivity in the cabin should be considered a direct link between the aircraft and the outside world, which includes potential malicious actors,” the new report found.

In other words, passengers sitting 35,000 feet above the Earth are surrounded by computer systems — from the program managing altitude to the one controlling cabin pressure — that are vulnerable to hacks. And if one system is hacked and a pilot or other program subsequently gets bad information, it could begin a cascade of errors that end in tragedy.

GAO didn’t specify what a cyberattack on an airline could look like. The reason why, according to John Knight, a University of Virginia professor of computer science who was consulted by GAO, is that modern airliners have so many vulnerable systems that it’s impossible to predict what a cyberattack would look like.

“The folks who are trying to protect these systems are working really hard to try to figure out all of the things that could go wrong,” Knight told FP. “But it’s not possible to have mathematical certainly that every vulnerability has been found because [the computer systems have] so many subtleties.”

“The people trying to attack these systems sometimes have enormous resources behind them. They can spend years with the deliberate intent to execute malicious acts,” he added.

GAO isn’t alone in warning about the cyber-vulnerability of planes. The International Air Transport Association and the International Civil Aviation Organization recently signed an agreement to work together to improve cyberdefenses. German insurer Allianz warned in 2014 that “cyber terrorism may replace the hijacker and bomber and become the weapon of choice on attacks against the aviation community.” Sally Leivesley, a former British Home Office official, even suggested the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could have fallen victim to a cyberattack.

As it confronts these threats, the Federal Aviation Administration has some catching up to do. GAO found responsibility for cyber-scatter throughout the FAA.

All of this might make a traveler forgo a plane and drive instead. But be warned: Modern cars’ reliance on computers leaves them vulnerable to cyberattacks as well.

Photo Credit: Philippe Huguen/Getty Images

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