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The Cable

U.S. Aviation Authorities: Plane Groundings Not Due to a Hack

A failed software update -- not a hack -- kept planes in the Washington, D.C., region on the ground Saturday.


U.S. officials constantly warn of the threat of cyberattacks by foes like Russia and China, two countries that have successfully infiltrated government networks in the past. But two of the more disruptive computer breakdowns in recent months — a July 8 shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange and Saturday’s grounding of planes in the Washington, D.C., area that canceled more than 400 flights — have a much more benign culprit: failed software updates.

On Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration tried to perform an update to enhance the En Route Automation Modernization, or ERAM, computer system, built by Lockheed Martin to make it easier for air traffic control to handle route changes and requests. The FAA says the system upgrade, which has been successfully rolled out at other airports around the country, has a 99.99 percent success rate. It failed Saturday, leaving planes at Baltimore-Washington International, Ronald Reagan Washington National, and Dulles International airports grounded from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. This set off a ripple of delays across the United States.

It follows the NYSE’s faulty software upgrade to a machine key to doing business on the exchange. Trading was halted for almost four hours on July 8, and immediate rumors blamed the shutdown on a hack. But it turned out the failed improvement to the system that matches buyers and sellers was responsible, according to the exchange.

The U.S. government knows that planes are potential targets of cyberattacks; on Saturday, the FAA, in a statement, was quick to quash concerns about a possible breach. An April 2015 Government Accountability report determined a savvy hacker could commandeer an aircraft, take over navigation and early warning systems, and insert a virus into flight control computers. In-flight Wi-Fi is also vulnerable.

“Modern communications technologies, including IP connectivity, are increasingly used in aircraft systems, creating the possibility that unauthorized individuals might access and compromise aircraft avionics systems,” the GAO report found.

Many U.S. federal agencies, including the Office of Personnel Management and the Pentagon, have had data stolen by hackers allegedly working on behalf of foreign governments. Personal information on tens of millions of government workers was compromised, allegedly by Chinese hackers, who targeted the federal human resources department. Earlier this month, Russian hackers got access to an email system used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, forcing the Defense Department to take it offline temporarily. Last year, hackers, allegedly working on behalf of North Korea, penetrated Sony’s computers to reveal private emails, financial data, and other information.

But as Saturday’s FAA incident and the July halt in trading shows, important systems are vulnerable to problems that plague even the least sophisticated computer user. However, instead of the rainbow spiral of death Mac users encounter when their system goes haywire, the real world implications of these missteps — almost 1,000 flight delays and cancellations, and stocks unable to trade hands on the world’s most active equity market — clearly have a much broader impact.

It’s also not the first time computer glitches unrelated to hacking kept planes on the ground. In April, issues with iPads on American Airlines planes stalled some flights. In July, United Airlines flights were delayed due to network connectivity issues.

Photo credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images

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