Airlines need to guard against terrorists on the ground who could hack into passengers’ phones in flight and use them to sabotage avionic systems to hijack aircraft, according to an IT expert speaking at a National Security Middle East conference in Abu Dhabi.
Gulf News quoted Dr Jasem Haji Al Jasem, director of IT at Bahrain-based Gulf Air, saying that the on-board Wi-Fi used by passengers posed a risk of hacking the plane itself.
“In the US, for example, two men did a test from their laboratory on the ground and proved that they could hack on to a passenger’s device through the internet connection,” Al Jasem told delegates.
A prominent US hacker told the FBI last year he used a computer to infiltrate a commercial aircraft’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) system and then, while in the air as a passenger, overwrite code to manipulate the aircraft’s thrust management computer and move the plane sideways.
FBI documents cited by CNN say that during interviews, computer expert Chris Roberts told investigators he hacked into in-flight entertainment systems 15 to 20 times from 2011 to 2014. See: Hacker claimed to take over plane and fly it sideways
Plane manufacturers, however, believe that while Roberts might have thought he had infiltrated the plane’s control systems, he couldn’t have actually done so. Boeing said its entertainment systems are “isolated from flight and navigation systems”. There are other safeguards as well.
Gulf News cited a BBC report last year saying that a terrorist could theoretically take over systems by compromising on-board equipment. Aircraft, including the B787 Dreamliner and A350 and A380, have a single network used by both the pilots to fly the plane and by passengers for their Wi-Fi connections, the BBC report said.
The proliferation of smartphones and apps, with airlines competing to let people use them in the air, heightens the risk.
Written by Peter Needham