Last month, I blogged about security researcher Chris Roberts being detained by the FBI after tweeting about avionics security while on a United flight:
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.
We know a lot more of the back story from the FBI’s warrant application. He had been interviewed by the FBI multiple times previously, and was able to take control of at least some of the planes’ controls during flight.
During two interviews with F.B.I. agents in February and March of this year, Roberts said he hacked the inflight entertainment systems of Boeing and Airbus aircraft, during flights, about 15 to 20 times between 2011 and 2014. In one instance, Roberts told the federal agents he hacked into an airplane’s thrust management computer and momentarily took control of an engine, according to an affidavit attached to the application for a search warrant.
“He stated that he successfully commanded the system he had accessed to issue the ‘CLB’ or climb command. He stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights,” said the affidavit, signed by F.B.I. agent Mike Hurley.
Roberts also told the agents he hacked into airplane networks and was able “to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”
According to the search warrant application, Roberts said he hacked into the systems by accessing the in-flight entertainment system using his laptop and an Ethernet cable.
Wired has more.
This makes the FBI’s behavior much more reasonable. They weren’t scanning the Twitter feed for random keywords; they were watching his account.
We don’t know if the FBI’s statements are true, though. But if Roberts was hacking an airplane while sitting in the passenger seat…wow, is that a stupid thing to do.
From the Christian Science Monitor:
But Roberts’ statements and the FBI’s actions raise as many questions as they answer. For Roberts, the question is why the FBI is suddenly focused on years-old research that has long been part of the public record.
“This has been a known issue for four or five years, where a bunch of us have been stood up and pounding our chest and saying, ‘This has to be fixed,'” Roberts noted. “Is there a credible threat? Is something happening? If so, they’re not going to tell us,” he said.
Roberts isn’t the only one confused by the series of events surrounding his detention in April and the revelations about his interviews with federal agents.
“I would like to see a transcript (of the interviews),” said one former federal computer crimes prosecutor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If he did what he said he did, why is he not in jail? And if he didn’t do it, why is the FBI saying he did?”
The real issue is that the avionics and the entertainment system are on the same network. That’s an even stupider thing to do. Also last month, I wrote about the risks of hacking airplanes, and said that I wasn’t all that worried about it. Now I’m more worried.
Posted on May 19, 2015 at 8:00 AM •