How se­cure is air­liner data?

Los Angeles Times - - MONDAY BUSINESS - By Hugo Martin

When it comes to se­cu­rity, air­lines have never been known for their sense of hu­mor.

That be­came par­tic­u­larly ap­par­ent this month to a cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert who joked dur­ing a flight about hack­ing into a com­mer­cial air­plane’s avion­ics com­put­ers through its wire­less In­ter­net sys­tem.

It prompted a quick re­sponse from air­lines, plane man­u­fac­tur­ers and on­board Wi-Fi providers who in­sist that it can­not be done. Se­cu­rity ex­perts say noth­ing is im­pos­si­ble.

The de­bate erupted af­ter cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert Chris Roberts, founder of One World Lab in Den­ver, sent a tweet while he was a pas­sen­ger on a United Air­lines flight sug­gest­ing he could hack into the air­line’s on­board sys­tem to trig­ger the oxy­gen masks to drop.

When the plane landed in Syra­cuse, FBI agents were wait­ing to ques­tion him and con­fis­cate his elec­tronic de­vices, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from Roberts’ at­tor­neys.

United Air­lines also was not amused and banned Roberts from fly­ing on the car­rier.

Roberts’ tweet came a day af­ter the U.S. Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­leased a re­port say­ing mod­ern planes are in­creas­ingly con­nected to the In­ter­net, open­ing the risk that hack­ers could ac­cess the air­craft’s avion­ics sys­tem. The GAO rec­om­mended more co­op­er­a­tion among fed­eral agen­cies to study the threat.

United Air­lines re­leased a state­ment about Roberts say­ing “we are con­fi­dent our flight con­trol sys­tems could not be ac­cessed through tech­niques he de­scribed.”

Global Ea­gle En­ter­tain­ment, a Los An­ge­les com­pany that pro­vides on­board Wi-Fi, en­ter­tain­ment and tech­nol­ogy for 150 air­lines world­wide, said it is not pos­si­ble to hack into the air­line’s avion­ics sys­tem through its Wi-Fi be­cause the two sys­tems do not share any wiring or routers.

Air­line man­u­fac­tur­ers Boe­ing Co. and Air­bus both is­sued state­ments down­play­ing any hack­ing vul­ner-

abil­ity. Still, the FBI and the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion posted a no­tice to the na­tion’s air­lines, warn­ing them to be on the look­out for any “sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity in­volv­ing trav­el­ers con­nect­ing un­known ca­bles or wires to the [in-flight en­ter­tain­ment] sys­tem or un­usual parts of the air­plane seat.”

The no­tice was first pub­lished by Wired mag­a­zine.

The FBI de­clined to elab­o­rate, say­ing only that the agency “rou­tinely pro­vides in­for­ma­tion to pri­vate in­dus­try in or­der to help part­ner en­ti­ties re­main aware of ob­served or re­ported threats.”

The na­tion’s three largest air­lines and their la­bor unions are usu­ally fierce busi­ness ri­vals. But in the last few months, they have joined forces against three Persian Gulf car­ri­ers: Eti­had, Emi­rates and Qatar Air­ways.

Amer­i­can, United and Delta Air Lines, along with pi­lots, flight at­ten­dants and other air­line work­ers, charge that the three Persian Gulf car­ri­ers are com­pet­ing un­fairly against U.S. car­ri­ers by ac­cept­ing huge sub­si­dies from their oil-rich gov­ern­ment own­ers.

A new anal­y­sis says the U.S. car­ri­ers and their union are gang­ing up on the Persian Gulf car­ri­ers be­cause they feel threat­ened by the pace of growth of the for­eign air­lines to serve the lu­cra­tive in­ter­na­tional travel mar­ket.

U.S. air­lines still con­trol the big­gest share of in­ter­na­tional travel — about 53% — but that share has fallen by 4 per­cent­age points over the last five years while Mid­dle Eastern car­ri­ers have tripled their seat­ing ca­pac­ity since 1996, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from OAG Avi­a­tion World­wide, a Bri­tish avi­a­tion data and anal­y­sis provider.

The growth was high­lighted two years ago when Emi­rates made the sin­gle largest air­craft or­der in U.S. com­mer­cial avi­a­tion his­tory — $76 bil­lion in air­craft from Boe­ing Co.

“There has been ex­po­nen­tial growth pro­vided by Mid­dle East car­ri­ers,” said John Grant, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of OAG.

The anal­y­sis goes on to point out that U.S. car­ri­ers may have more than one for­eign com­peti­tor to worry about: In the last five years, Chi­nese car­ri­ers have in­creased to­tal seat­ing ca­pac­ity by 140%.

“The U.S. still has the largest civil avi­a­tion mar­ket in the world and will for the next seven or eight years,” Grant said. “But the gap be­tween the U.S. and Chi­nese air­lines is shrink­ing.”

U.S. air­lines fight Mideast car­ri­ers

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