FBI Claims Hacker Made Plane Fly Sideways

The FBI has accused a security researcher of hacking a plane’s on-board computers to make it fly sideways during a flight.

The details emerged in a search warrant application produced by the Feds to examine the accused’s laptops, hard drives and other computer equipment for evidence.

It claims that in two interviews with the FBI in February and March this year, One World Labs founder Chris Roberts admitted identifying vulnerabilities in the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems on Boeing 737-800, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A-320 aircraft.

He’s said to have compromised these systems 15 to 20 times between 2011 and 2014, gaining physical access by “wiggling and squeezing” the seat electronic box (SEB) installed under the seat in front of him.

After doing so, Roberts would apparently use an Ethernet cable to hook up his laptop and then hack the IFE system.

The affidavit continues:

“He stated that he then overwrote code on the airplane’s Thrust Management Computer while aboard a flight. He stated that he successfully commanded the system he had accessed to issue the ‘CLB’ or climb command. He said 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 stated that he used Vortex software after compromising/exploiting or ‘hacking’ the airplane’s networks. He used the software to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”

Although he admits hacking planes’ IFE systems, Roberts has taken issue with the above.

“That paragraph that’s in there is one paragraph out of a lot of discussions, so there is context that is obviously missing which obviously I can’t say anything about,” he told Wired.

“It would appear from what I’ve seen that the federal guys took one paragraph out of a lot of discussions and a lot of meetings and notes and just chose that one as opposed to plenty of others.”

Roberts was first detained for questioning after sending a now infamous tweet about his activities which got him kicked off a United Airlines flight in April.

He maintains that he managed to make a plane climb in a simulated test but has never interfered with these systems during a real flight.

A statement from Boeing would seem to indicate that such a hack would be impossible:

“IFE systems on commercial airplanes are isolated from flight and navigation systems. While these systems receive position data and have communication links, the design isolates them from the other systems on airplanes performing critical and essential functions.”

There’s been widespread condemnation of Roberts’ research in certain quarters, although some security experts have backed him.

“Research is the lifeblood of the security industry and it is absolutely imperative for protecting the virtual front line,” Bloxx CEO Charles Sweeney told Infosecurity.

“The majority of security researchers know and understand the valuable contribution they make, but also respect their role and the need to draw a line between responsible research and the temptation to ‘have a bit of fun.’ Yes, this researcher has got a bit carried away but the incident shouldn't detract from the invaluable work of researchers in keeping us all safe online.”

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