Hacker Detained by FBI after Tweeting about Airplane Software Vulnerabilities
Chris Roberts was detained by FBI agents on Wednesday as he was deplaning his United flight, which had just flown from Denver to Syracuse, New York. While on board the flight, he tweeted a joke about taking control of the plane’s engine-indicating and crew-alerting system, which provides flight crews with information in real-time about an aircraft’s functions, including temperatures of various equipment, fuel flow and quantity, and oil pressure. In the tweet, Roberts jested: “Find myself on a 737/800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM, ? Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? ‘PASS OXYGEN ON’ Anyone ? :)” FBI agents questioned Roberts for four hours and confiscated his iPad, MacBook Pro, and storage devices.
Yes, the real issue here is the chilling effects on security research. Security researchers who point out security flaws is a good thing, and should be encouraged.
But to me, the fascinating part of this story is that a computer was monitoring the Twitter feed and understood the obscure references, alerted a person who figured out who wrote them, researched what flight he was on, and sent an FBI team to the Syracuse airport within a couple of hours. There’s some serious surveillance going on.
Now, it is possible that Roberts was being specifically monitored. He is already known as a security researcher who is working on avionics hacking. But still…
EDITED TO ADD (4/22): Another article, this one about the debate over disclosing security vulnerabilities.