How secure is airliner data?
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