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Android App Can Crash An Airliner

March 15, 2013

Could a computer hacker take control of an airliner in flight using a smartphone app? Internet security consultant, Hugo Teso, demonstrates how.

  • Teso claims the App system can reprogram routes, alter settings and even crash the plane
  • Teso's App alerts airlines of the vulnerabilities in their systems and he claims it will not work on a 'live' plane

 

It is a terrifying prospect – a would-be hijacker seizes control of a plane from the ground armed with nothing more than a smartphone. Such a scenario could come to pass, according to Teso who has created an app that can take over a plane’s computers and gain total control of the aircraft.

Teso, 30, is a trained commercial pilot. He says he can make an airliner ‘dance to his tune’ by using the technology – which would not be picked up by security checks.

HIJACKING DEMONSTRATION

In a simulation, Teso was able to do everything from change the air-conditioning settings to feed false navigational information to a jet, making it change course. Aviation agencies in Europe and the US want to interview Mr Teso about his PlaneSploit app.

Speaking at the Hack In The Box Conference in Amsterdam, he said that after four years of research, he was able to subvert the flight management systems (FMS) found on most aircraft.To test the technology, Teso built a simulator from spare plane parts that he bought on eBay, which ran on many of the systems that are used on commercial aircraft.

According to Help Net Security, the system works by infiltrating radio broadcasts between aircraft and air traffic control, and then using a second communication system to send malicious messages that could ‘take full control of the plane’ or indirectly affect the pilot’s behaviour by making cockpit lights flash, for instance.

Teso showed his audience a screen grab from his smartphone which showed a flight-deck style display with a range of buttons on it. The functions he showed off included a button marked ‘please go here’ which allowed him to change the course of the plane.

Another was ‘visit ground’, which was to crash the plane. He was also able to make a light flash in the cockpit to make the pilot think something was seriously wrong. He said the app could work with a range of around 100miles and possibly as high as 30,000ft – the cruising altitude of many passenger planes.

For terrorists to create such an APP, they would need solid knowledge of aviation and its 'protocols.’ An attack would only work when the auto-pilot is on, so the trick is to switch it off, then fly the plane by using analog instruments.

The bad news is that there aren't that many on modern planes, and that the pilots have to detect that the plane's computer is being hacked in order to effect these maneuvers, and that is no easy feat.

By Daniel Bates (edited)

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