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US regulator raises Dreamliner hacker risk fear

Unfriendly skies

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Regulators have expressed concern that Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner passenger jet may be vulnerable to hacker attack.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has raised fears that onboard computer networks are potentially exposed to tampering by passengers. Systems designed to give passengers in-flight internet access are connected to the plane's control and navigation systems. The two networks are not physically separated.

In addition, the plane's computer systems have links to an airline's business and administrative support network on the ground.

"Because of this new passenger connectivity, the proposed data-network design and integration may result in security vulnerabilities from intentional or unintentional corruption of data and systems critical to the safety and maintenance of the airplane," the FAA warns.

"This is serious," said Mark Loveless, a network security analyst with Autonomic Networks, who presented a conference talk on the topic entitled Hacking the Friendly Skies last year. "This isn't a desktop computer. It's controlling the systems that are keeping people from plunging to their deaths. So I hope they are really thinking about how to get this right."

A Boeing spokeswoman told Wired that passenger and control networks are only loosely connected. Nonetheless, Boeing is working on a variety of modifications to address the FAA concerns including physical separation of the networks and software firewalls as well as more proprietary airline-specific technologies.

Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter explained that although data can pass between the two networks, protections already in place make sure that passenger internet services are blocked from accessing maintenance data or the navigation system "under any circumstance".

Tests on these systems, scheduled for March, still need to take place. Gunter added that Boeing had been working with the FAA for years on safety issues involving the Dreamliner prior to the publication of its recent "special conditions" document, a briefing paper produced by the regulator when it encounters unusual issues involving a plane's design. Given the pace of innovation in the airline industry such papers are by no means rare.

Boeing has taken more than 800 advance orders for the 787 Dreamliner mid-size jet capable of seating between 210 and 330 passengers and due to enter service in November 2008. The FAA will require proof that Boeing has come up with modifications that address computer security concerns before it licenses the plane. ®

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