Take one disgruntled hacker, add a flight full of passengers all surfing on the same Wi-Fi (that’s also connected to the cockpit), and you have an action thriller that’s somewhere between Swordfish and Speed.
But a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office for the Federal Aviation Administration describes the fearsome scenario of a hacker breaking into a plane’s avionics through in-flight Wi-Fi. And it’s not just Wi-Fi: The report indicates that the whole internal communication system in a plane could be targeted by hackers, according to Ars Technica.
The threats are twofold, the report says. The first centers on the Wi-Fi, which is used by both passengers and pilots. If the flight-controlling avionics are hooked up to the Internet protocol that runs to the passenger cabin, according to the report, the only barriers between a passenger hacker and controlling the plane are software firewalls–and firewalls can be circumvented. If there are smartphones or tablets in the cockpit that connect to the avionics, the threat is even higher.
The second threat comes through the Internet itself. Since most planes run on Internet protocol, any passenger could visit a website and get spiked with malware, which could use the plane’s Internet to access the plane’s systems. Sound familiar?
This virus-like threat does not just affect today’s planes either, says the report: The FAA has spent the last 10 years modernizing the way air traffic controllers, planes, and satellites all communicate with each other as part of its Next Generation Air Transportation (NextGen) initiative. NextGen’s reliance on digital integration expands the potential for system breaches.
The report noted that the FAA is looking into the scenario and aims to draft new policies that restructure its information technology infrastructure by September.