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DON'T PANIC! Satellite comms hacking won't be able to crash an aircraft

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Black Hat 2014 Nervous fliers have one less thing to worry about after it turns out that, despite some alarmist reports, hackers won't be making planes fall out of the sky any time soon.

The sensational headlines came after reporters learned that Ruben Santamarta, a consultant with security firm IOActive, was going to talk at Black Hat about insecure satellite communications systems on aircraft. Now that he's given the full presentation at the conference in Las Vegas on Thursday, we can tell you what the deal is.

"We can disrupt satellite signals and modify the data channel but that doesn't mean you can completely control the aircraft," Santamarta said.

"Aircraft have several ways to communicate with the ground, including VHF, and they don't just rely on satellites."

He added that none of the testing IOActive carried out indicated that the avionics system could be controlled remotely by a hacker. Instead, the satellite signal could be jammed or occasionally spoofed by someone inside the aircraft using the in-flight Wi-Fi, although some of the hacks he described would require physical access to the hardware itself.

Santamarta's research into five manufacturers' satellite communications equipment uncovered various software security vulnerabilities – and a host of undocumented subroutines and login credentials hardcoded in the firmware.

He also found a host of backdoor services that, according to the manufacturers, could be used by support staff to get into systems to perform maintenance tasks without needing to ask for passwords from the equipment's owners.

"You should never put backdoors in code," he said. "It's always a security risk."

Santamarta reported that the satellite communications manufacturers had not taken his findings well. For example, he claimed Iridium had rejected his study and said that no patches or code revisions were needed, while Inmarsat had acknowledged that changes needed to be made.

So as you head off on your holidays you can breathe a little easier. It seems terrorists aren't going to be crashing planes with a computer any time soon. ®

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