By Kate O’Flaherty
Aircraft security is under the spotlight after the U.S. government confirmed a move to protect citizens from cyberattacks targeting aviation. It comes amid growing concern that aviation is a major target for terrorists, who could use cyberattacks to threaten planes and passengers.
The Department of Home Security is leading the revived program alongside the Pentagon and Transportation Department that aims to test airliners’ vulnerability to hacking, according to the Wall Street Journal. Few details are available, but DHS confirmed that the program would include testing actual aircraft for vulnerabilities.
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The program is focusing on protecting the electronic systems of new and old airliners from cyberattacks. Concerns have been growing after cyberattacks on other connected so-called critical infrastructure such as power grids. A U.S. government program is in place to focus on power grids via the SEIA Bill, which mandates the use of specific technologies to help protect the systems underpinning them.
Aviation security: A serious issue
The issue of airplane security is certainly being taken very seriously. Separately, the U.S. Air Force will also be taking a bigger role in identifying security problems in commercial aviation systems–many of which are used by the military.
“If we don’t probe first, our adversaries will,” Will Roper, assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, told the Wall Street Journal. “We’ve been a little complacent in not trying to attack all of the parts of the airplane.”
So far, cyberattacks targeting airlines have focused on the IT systems rather than aircraft themselves. U.K. airline British Airways is facing a huge fine after passenger data from around 380,000 bookings was breached, including bank card numbers along with cvv codes.
But in the future, this could change. “The U.S. Airforce and most other airforces use airframes and systems that are often the same as their civilian counterparts,” says Philip Ingram, MBE, a former colonel in British military intelligence. He says the restarting of the program suggests “that secret intelligence has identified nation state and non-nation state actors potentially looking at vulnerabilities in aircraft.”
Meanwhile, Ingram says the threat from terrorism is real, but the main players have not found a way of hacking aircraft yet: “If terrorists could find a way of hacking an aircraft to bring it down, they would. The ISIS Cyber Arm, the Cyber Caliphate Shield has lots of ambitions to carry out these sorts of attacks, but they don’t have the technical capabilities.”
Modern aircraft are essentially “flying data centers in the sky,” says Ian Thornton-Trump, security head at AMTrust Europe. “It’s natural for the Air Force to apply its cyber defensive and offensive skills in order to insure the logistical and refuelling fleet is robust when it comes to physical and cybersecurity. I believe this is a great idea and the Airforce is about to pick up the cybersecurity ball after the FAA–for a lot of reasons–either dropped it or had it taken away.”
He points out that the Airforce’s mission of “fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace”’ cannot be achieved “if the civilian platforms they have prove vulnerable to cyberattack.”
Aircraft cyberattacks: Addressing with urgency
It’s a major issue: The consequences of cyberattacks targeting commercial aircraft could be “devastating” and put peoples’ lives in danger, says Andrea Carcano, co-founder of Nozomi Networks. “Airlines therefore need to develop security strategies where vulnerabilities are monitored and mitigated continuously.”
The aviation sector is facing cybersecurity challenges as it moves away from isolated, bespoke solutions and becomes increasingly connected and digitally-enabled, says Nigel Stanley, CTO of TUV Rheinland. “Separating key systems with ‘air gaps’ is no longer enough to prevent attackers accessing a system. A risk-based approach to aviation cybersecurity is needed so that manufacturers, systems integrators and aviation operators embed cybersecurity risk into their products from the very start.”
The threat from cyberattacks on critical national infrastructure such as aircraft and power grids is growing as adversaries including terrorist and nation state actors realize the damage that can be done.
It’s no surprise that the U.S. is taking steps to address this with urgency. “I think there is an increasing realisation that the cyberenvironment is the preferred environment for conflict,” says Ingram. “It is therefore essential that countries look at all potential vulnerabilities.”
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