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Cyber expert ‘finds’ way to hack passenger planes


Cybersecurity researcher Ruben Santamarta poses for a photo in Coslada, near Madrid, on July 30, 2014. Santamarta says he has figured out how to hack the satellite communications equipment on passenger jets through their WiFi and inflight entertainment systems - a claim that, if confirmed, could prompt a review of aircraft security. Photo: Reuters/Andrea Comas

Boston: Cybersecurity researcher Ruben Santamarta says he has figured out how to hack the satellite communications equipment on passenger jets through their WiFi and inflight entertainment systems — a claim that, if confirmed, could prompt a review of aircraft security.

Santamarta, a consultant with cybersecurity firm IOActive, is scheduled to lay out the technical details of his research at this week's Black Hat hacking conference in Las Vegas, an annual convention where thousands of hackers and security experts meet to discuss emerging cyber threats and improve security measures.

His presentation on Thursday on vulnerabilities in satellite communications systems used in aerospace and other industries is expected to be one of the most widely watched at the conference.

"These devices are wide open. The goal of this talk is to help change that situation," Santamarta, 32, said.

The researcher said he discovered the vulnerabilities by "reverse engineering" — or decoding — highly specialised software known as firmware, used to operate communications equipment made by Cobham Plc, Harris Corp, EchoStar Corp's Hughes Network Systems, Iridium Communications Inc and Japan
Radio Co Ltd.

In theory, a hacker could use a plane's onboard WiFi signal or inflight entertainment system to hack into its avionics equipment, potentially disrupting or modifying satellite communications, which could interfere with the aircraft's navigation and safety systems, Santamarta said.

He acknowledged that his hacks have only been tested in controlled environments, such as IOActive's Madrid laboratory, and they might be difficult to replicate in the real world.

Santamarta said he decided to go public to encourage manufacturers to fix what he saw as risky security flaws.

Representatives for Cobham, Harris, Hughes and Iridium said they had reviewed Santamarta's research and confirmed some of his findings, but downplayed the risks.

For instance, Cobham, whose Aviation 700 aircraft satellite communications equipment was the focus of Santamarta's research, said it is not possible for hackers to use WiFi signals to interfere with critical systems that rely on satellite communications for navigation and safety.

The hackers must have physical access to Cobham's equipment, according to Cobham spokesman Greg Caires.

"In the aviation and maritime markets we serve, there are strict requirements restricting such access to authorised personnel only," said Caires.

A Japan Radio Co spokesman declined to comment, saying information on such vulnerabilities was not public.

Black Hat, which was founded in 1997, has often been a venue for hackers to present breakthrough research.

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