Passenger Planes Vulnerable to Hacking

An El Al plane taking off at  Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An El Al plane taking off at Ben Gurion Airport. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

 An Israeli cyber expert says that commercial airliners are vulnerable to hacking and that not enough is being done to address the problem.

Esti Peshin, head of the cyber division at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), told Ynet that many of the airlines’ operating systems are lacking any defense that can stand up to sophisticated cyber warfare.

“There isn’t enough coordination between the airport authorities, the airlines, and the airplane manufacturers. Some of the systems they use for these planes are based on simple Windows operating systems, and were created at a time when no one worried about hackers (hacking into airplanes).”

She cited the case of a hacker grounding 10 Lot Polish airlines planes a year ago by disrupting their flight plan systems. A month before that, a Spanish military cargo plane crashed and killed four crewmembers after three out of four of the computers which control the engines were accidentally wiped.

That same week hacker Chris Roberts was arrested in the United States after boasting that he was able to take control of the navigation system of the plane he was on simply by hacking into the in-flight entertainment system. That’s just a sampling of what’s been going on, she says.

Roberts “was arrested and interrogated by the FBI, who took his claims very seriously. The U.S. Congress is currently discussing a law which will obligate airline companies to report on any cyber attacks against them, but this is just the first step that the authorities need to take.”

It’s not just the planes, but the airports that are at risk.

“A hacker can get into various airport systems and shut them down – shut down the checked bag x-ray system for example – which can put planes in danger. But a cyber attack isn’t just hackers who are trying to take down planes. It could be some 16-year-old kid who wants to impress his friends and send all of the luggage on a particular flight to Japan. Or it could be someone who is hired by one airline to wreak electronic havoc on another airline. Can you imagine if all of a sudden all 400 passengers on a flight are signed up to receive a vegan meal? It won’t bring down a plane, but it will seriously damage the airline’s reputation.”

Despite her extensive knowledge of the mayhem hacking can cause, Peshin doesn’t lose sleep over it. When asked if she continues to fly and sleep on flights, she replied:

“Of course! I fly all the time for work. I need to be able to sleep on them.”