Crashing a plane through IFE?

4549185468_d28a2709e2_zThis week end, Chris Roberts made the headlines of the media.  He was presented as the hacker who succeeded to control a plane by hacking the In-Flight Entertainment  (IFE) system. This is not the first time that planes are supposed to be controlable by hackers.  In 2013, a researcher claimed to control the flight management system with an Android phone.  As usual, not properly analysed documents were used to create a false sense of truth.  I have seen mainly two big “pieces of evidence’ that demonstrated it must be true.

  • It is written in an FBI affidavit that Roberts hacked IFE and controlled a plane.  He was arrested, and his electronic material seized.
  • The US Government Accountability Office (GOA) stated in a report that it was feasible.

I decided to read these “evidences”.  As FBI arrested Roberts, the FBI agent wrote an affidavit.  Some interesting facts:

  • Roberts was two times interviewed by FBI about vulnerabilities on IFE: 13 February 2015 and 5 March 2015.  During these interviews, Roberts explained his operating mode as well as his tools.  He  claimed to have entered about twenty times in Panasonic and Thales IFE.  He claimed that one time he was able to access the avionics system.
  • He stated that he then overwrote code on the airplane’s Thrust Management Computer while aboard a flight.  He stated that he successfully commanded the system he had accessed to issue the “CLB” or climb command.  He stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane…

  • The affidavit does not state that he provided any proof of this statement.
  • In February, FBI agents advised him that accessing the IFE without authorization may be a violation and may result in prosecution.  He acknowledged this fact.
  • On 15th April, Roberts twitted that he may “play” with the avionics once more.
  • United Airlines informed FBI who then arrested Roberts.
  • Investigation showed that two boxes used by IFE were tampered.  One of these boxes was at his seat (3A) and the second one was one row in front of him (2A)
  • … showed that the SEBs under seats 2A and 3A showed signs of tampering.  The SEB under 2A was damaged.  The outer cover of the box was open approximatively 1/2 inch and one of the retaining screw was not seated and was exposed.

  • It is interesting to note that the “opened” box was one row in front on a first class seat.

Despite was media infers, the affidavit does not present any proof that he hacked the IFE and even less that he accessed the avionics.

The governmental report from GOA is even less conclusive.  The statement is

Modern aircraft are increasingly connected to the Internet. This interconnectedness can potentially provide unauthorized remote access to aircraft avionics systems.

This broad statement cannot be challenged.   It is Law 8.  The same can be said from any car automotive systems.  Nevertheless, this does not mean that avionics can be accessed from IFE.

In other words, there is no real evidence that Roberts hacked the avionics.  It may be possible that Roberts hacked the IFE network with physical access to the network carrying video.  Most of the wired IFE systems may assume that the physical network is trusted.   It is usually expected that the attending crew would spot a user tampering the hardware.  Fortunately, the IFE and the avionics are air-gapped. I know the Airbus and Thales security teams. They would never have accepted the risk to not air gapping the systems.  All the IFE systems I was exposed to were air-gapped from avionics.  Roberts did never explain how he would have succeeded to cross the air gap.  (Current attacks on air gap, use either file sharing in the cloud, contaminating files exchanged over USB thumbs or sophisticated side channels such as audio or thermal)

Conclusion:  don’t panic when you see a guy with a computer in a plane.


image credits: by-sa Sarah Klockars-Clauser 2010

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