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Hacker to Highlight Airliner Cyber-Hijacking Risk At Black Hat

(Flickr Creative Commons)

(Flickr Creative Commons)

A cyber security researcher claims to have figured out how to hijack passenger jets by hacking their satellite communications equipment through their WiFi and inflight entertainment systems.

Ruben Santamarta, 32, a consultant with cyber security firm IOActive, will discuss his eyebrow-raising research at this week’s Black Hat hacking conference in Las Vegas, Reuters reports.

It’s one of the most highly-anticipated presentations that will be delivered at the conference, where thousands of hackers and cyber security professionals will discuss emerging threats and how to improve security. Santamarta’s presentation will examine vulnerabilities in satellite communications systems utilized in aerospace and other high-tech industries.

Santamarta says he discovered vulnerabilities in airline communications systems by decoding firmware, specialized software used to operate communications equipment. Those vulnerabilities, he says, could allow remote, unauthorized users to gain access to vital systems.

Hackers could, in theory, use a plane’s onboard WiFi signal or inflight entertainment system to gain access to avionics equipment, raising the terrifying prospect of cyber hijacking that would affect navigation and safety systems.

Santamarta and his research team used the same devices which are often used to access satellite communications networks for air and sea travel. He claims that “100 percent of the devices could be abused.”

“In certain cases, no user interaction is required to exploit the vulnerability,” Santamarta is quoted on CNET. “Just sending a simple SMS or specially crafted message from one ship to another could do it.”

Santamarta acknowledges he has only been able to accomplish his results in a controlled environment and that replicating them in the real world presents considerable difficulties. But he still believes he must educate the public about the potential dangers.

“These devices are wide open,” he told Reuters. “The goal of this talk is to help change that situation.”

The communications equipment in question is manufactured by Cobham Plc, Harris Corp., EchoStar Corp’s Hughes Network Systems, Iridium Communications Inc. and Japan Radio Co. Ltd. Representatives from these companies largely downplayed the risk of cyber hacking.

Cobham, whose Aviatior 700 aircraft satellite communications equipment was hacked by Santamarta’s research team, claimed it isn’t possible for hackers to use WiFi to interfere with satellite-reliant critical systems, and that potential hackers would need physical access to the company’s equipment to accomplish such a task.

“In the aviation and maritime markets we serve, there are strict requirements restricting such access to authorized personnel only,” Cobham spokesman Greg Cairnes told Reuters.

Jim Burke, a spokesman for Harris Corp., told Reuters that “the risk of compromise is very small,” an assertion echoed by Iridium spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry.

“We have determined that the risk to Iridium subscribers is minimal, but we are taking precautionary measures to safeguard our users,” Hockenberry told Reuters.

Vincenzo Iozzo, who sits on Black Hat’s review board, hailed Santamarta’s research as the first time anyone has identified potentially catastrophic vulnerabilities in satellite communications equipment.

“I am not sure we can actually launch an attack from the passenger inflight entertainment system into the cockpit,” Iozzo told Reuters. “[But] the core point is the type of vulnerabilities he discovered are pretty scary just because they involve very basic security things that vendors should already be aware of.”

Santamarta’s presentation is scheduled for Thursday.

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