Documents filed by an FBI agent have revealed that a prominent hacker and cyber security expert has admitted to hijacking a plane mid-flight, taking control of its systems and briefly causing the aircraft to fly sideways.
Speaking with a special agent earlier this year, Chris Roberts alleged that he hacked the in-flight entertainment systems of multiple planes between 2011 and 2014, compromising networks as many as 20 times. In at least one incident, he was able to use his skills to hack into and overwrite a plane’s Thrust Management Computer code, which allowed him to make the aircraft climb and swerve sideways, according to the Daily Mail.
— TECHinPDX (@TECHinPDX) May 17, 2015
In his application for a warrant, FBI Special Agent Mark Hurley noted the effects that Roberts’ hacking had on the aircraft.
“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. He also stated that he used Vortex software after comprising/exploiting or ‘hacking’ the airplane’s networks. He used the software to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”
After interviews with FBI agents that took place on February 13, 23 and March 5, two laptops and several data storage devices were confiscated from Roberts. Despite his admission, he has not been charged in relation to the allegations that he hacked the planes’ systems.
The report of Roberts’ hacking comes just a month after he was detained by the FBI after tweeting that he could compromise the systems of a United Airlines plane he was aboard. As the Inquisitr previously reported, Roberts was detained for several hours in Syracuse, New York after the plane landed.
Find myself on a 737/800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM,? Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? “PASS OXYGEN ON” Anyone? :) — Chris Roberts (@Sidragon1) April 15, 2015
Roberts was apparently able to hack into the airplane networks through the Seat Electronic Box, or SEB, according to Wired. Two of these boxes are installed in each row, underneath passengers’ seats on certain models of aircraft. After removing the cover from one of these boxes, he used a modified Cat6 ethernet cable to connect his laptop physically to the network before using the airplane’s inflight entertainment system as a gateway to other, more crucial flight systems.
— Tarek Bazley (@tarekbazley) May 17, 2015
Reaction from the security community has been harsh, with several people pointing out that Roberts’ hijacking potentially endangered the lives of innocent people aboard the plane.
You cannot promote the (true) idea that security research benefits humanity while defending research that endangered hundreds of innocents — Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) May 16, 2015
In a previous interview with Wired, Roberts admitted that he and his research partner examined data on over a dozen planes after connecting to their networks. He insisted, however, that any subversion of an airplane’s systems had taken place only in simulations. Last month, a report by the Government Accountability Office also asserted that commercial airplanes may be vulnerable to the activities of hackers and potential hijackers through their wireless networks.
[Photo by Chris Hondros / Getty Images]