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Researcher hacks aircraft controls with Android smartphone

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A presentation at the Hack In The Box security summit in Amsterdam has demonstrated that it's possible to take control of aircraft flight systems and communications using an Android smartphone and some specialized attack code.

Hugo Teso, a security researcher at N.Runs and a commercial airline pilot, spent three years developing the code, buying second-hand commercial flight system software and hardware online and finding vulnerabilities within it. His presentation will cause a few sleepless nights among those with an interest in aircraft security.

Teso's attack code, dubbed SIMON, along with an Android app called PlaneSploit, can take full control of flight systems and the pilot's displays. The hacked aircraft could even be controlled using a smartphone's accelerometer to vary its course and speed by moving the handset about.

"You can use this system to modify approximately everything related to the navigation of the plane," Teso told Forbes. "That includes a lot of nasty things."

First, Teso looked at the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system that updates ground controllers on an aircraft's position over a 1Mb/s data link. This has no security at all, he found, and could be used to passively eavesdrop on an aircraft's communications and also actively interrupt broadcasts or feed in misinformation.

Also vulnerable is the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), the communication relay used between pilots and ground controllers. Using a Samsung Galaxy handset, he demonstrated how to use ACARS to redirect an aircraft's navigation systems to different map coordinates.

"ACARS has no security at all. The airplane has no means to know if the messages it receives are valid or not," he said. "So they accept them and you can use them to upload data to the airplane that triggers these vulnerabilities. And then it's game over."

Teso was also able to use flaws in ACARS to insert code into a virtual aircraft's Flight Management System. By running the code between the aircraft's computer unit and the pilot's display he was able to take control of what the aircrew would be seeing in the cockpit and change the direction, altitude, and speed of the compromised craft.

He admitted that some of this was moot, given that the human pilot could always override the automatic systems, but the software could be used to make cockpit displays go haywire or control other functions, like deploying oxygen masks or lights.

The precise nature of the code flaws wasn't released – for understandable reasons – but Teso says the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Administration have both been informed and are working on fixing the issue. ®

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