RISK: Security researcher claims to have hacked into aircraft computer mid-flight

His "only interest has been to improve aircraft safety."

Chris Roberts is a security researcher who flew on United Airlines from Chicago to Syracuse last month. During the flight, he told federal agents, he was able to hack into aircraft computer systems mid-flight numerous times through the in-flight entertainment systems, and at one point he caused the plane to move sideways, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit.

Although the claims are still being investigated, United cast doubt on whether it was possible to control an airplane through the entertainment system, while other experts said such cyber threats should be taken seriously given that airplanes are increasingly connected to the Internet.

The fact that passengers on flights with in-seat video monitors can shift between television and a map showing the plane’s real-time location indicates a link between the flight control and passenger entertainment networks, said Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University. And airplanes that offer Wi-Fi are likely using the same data link used by pilots to communicate with the airline, he said.

Roberts founded One World Labs, which tries to discover security risks before they are exploited. He had met previously, in February and March, with the FBI to discuss vulnerabilities with in-flight entertainment systems aboard certain aircraft, the affidavit said. During the meetings, Roberts claimed to have compromised the systems 15 to 20 times between 2011 and 2014, using a cable to connect his laptop to an electronics box located beneath passenger seats, the document said.

“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,” the affidavit said.

Roberts declined to comment Monday when reached at his Denver office. In a statement issued through his attorney, he said his “only interest has been to improve aircraft safety.”

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