On October 8, 2015, the director of the European Aviation Safety Agency, Patrick Ky revealed he has hired consultant, which is also a commercial pilot, who was able to exploit vulnerabilities in the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). The ACARS system is used in aviation as a digital datalink system for the exchange of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via Airband radio or satellite.
Ky made the shocking revelation about airplane hacking during the meeting with the Association of Journalists of aerospace press (AJPAE), the consultant only needed 5 minutes to crack ACARS and some days to access to the aircraft control system on the ground.
“For security reasons, I will not tell you how he did it, but I let you judge if the risk is high or low,” said Ky.
Similar security issues were discussed by the researcher Hugo Teso during Hack in the Box conference in 2013, when he demonstrated that the airplane hacking was possible by exploiting a framework (dubbed Simon) and an Android app.
Teso remarked that his application was a proof of concept developed to alert the Federal Aviation Administration, the European Aviation Safety Administration and principal aircraft manufacturers, the risk of an attack is high and concrete and all these institutions are already working to fix the security holes, according Teso.
The magic is possible eavesdropping system’s communications over its 1MBps link and manipulating them injecting specially crafted data.
Hugo Teso also hacked the ACARS and was able to disclose many on-board system vulnerabilities. The experts highlighted that the airplane hacking was relatively easy because almost no security was protecting the communications between the aircraft the ground.
“The system’s weak point is that it doesn’t verify communication packages on the way from the ground to the plane,”, “Because of that, it is possible to spoof the system by inserting a new package along the way.” is the opinion expressed by Andrey Nikishin, head of future technologies projects development at Kaspersky Lab.
Nikishin believes that an attacker can send bogus messages to the pilots affect their decision when flying:
“Theoretically, a malicious user can influence a pilot’s decision to change the route, if, through the spoofing flow, he sends the plane a fake message about an upcoming storm,” , “The same malicious scheme could be applied to spoof GPS, making the system believe that it is located in a different place from where it actually is.
The problem is that the proprietary system used to encode/decode messages it’s the same since 1978, and it lack cyber security by desing.
“This makes it outdated, and we believe that aircraft manufacturers should have already started to develop a new system, with a new approach.” said Nikishin.
Coming back to Ky, these revelations about the ACARS being cracked are in line with a new system,
“Tomorrow, with the introduction of Sesar and the possibility for the air traffic control to directly ive instructions to the aircraft control system, this risk will be multiplied,”, “We need to start by putting in place a structure for alerting airlines to cyber attacks.”
The recently discovered security issues in air traffic systems, let us to believe that many of the technologies used in the aviation industry are outdated and that perhaps aircraft manufacturers need to spend more time thinking about cyber threats to avoid the airplane hacking.
A report published by Government Accounting Office (GAO) in January urges the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to adopt a formal process to “Address Weaknesses in Air Traffic Control Systems.” The FAA has taken steps to protect its air traffic control systems from threats, including cyber threats, but according to the GAO, the systems adopted in the Aviation industry are still affected by weaknesses that could be exploited by hackers.
Modern aircraft are very sophisticated systems, but the massive introduction of technology could have the side effect to unload their surface of attack is the risk of airplane hacking is underestimated.
This isn’t the first time that cyber security experts warn the aviation industry about the risks of airplane hacking. In May, the researcher Chris Roberts announced via Twitter that he was able to hack the flight he was on. Roberts was arrested by the FBI, the experts claimed he had burrowed through the aircraft’s onboard entertainment system to gain control over critical systems of the airplane.
About the Author Elsio Pinto
(Security Affairs – airplane hacking, ACARS)