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Someone Actually Hacked an Airplane

Someone Actually Hacked an Airplane
Jennifer Billock

The air travel industry claimed it couldn’t be done, but a Department of Homeland Security official proved the industry wrong: in 2016, he remotely hacked into a plane parked at an airport, using no insider help—and although he didn’t share exactly what systems he’d accessed, alarms have been raised.

Robert Hickey, a Department of Homeland Security official, beat the odds in 2016 and hacked into a Boeing plane parked at the Atlantic City airport. He wasn’t onboard the plane at the time, and he didn’t have any help. It was a standard hacking operation. He shared this information at a cyber security conference this year and, although he couldn’t share much about the systems he accessed, it has the air travel industry a bit on edge.

Being more integrated with digital systems has raised the stakes for the ability of hackers to break into aircraft controls.

“We have to admit that the threats and vulnerabilities have changed,” Matthieu Gualino, a security trainer for consultants at aviation safety regulator L.A. Conseils and ICAO, told the Financial Times. “We have had technology in the air for many years … [but] the rise of connected technologies leads to greater vulnerability.”

Both the United States and the United Kingdom governments have acknowledged security concerns. There were claims back in 2015 that a cyber security expert hacked into a plan and accessed the flight controls—but that hasn’t been proven. And for Boeing’s part, the company denies such cyber attacks are even possible.

“Critical flight systems cannot be accessed from an aeroplane’s non-critical systems,” Boeing told the Financial Times. “Multiple layers of protection, including software, hardware, and network architecture features, are designed to … guard against intrusion. Technical controls protecting flight critical systems … extend beyond traditional security measures found in ground-based environments.”

View Comments (3)


  1. Zephyr22

    October 18, 2018 at 7:32 am

    “he didn’t have any help. It was a standard hacking operation”

    Didn’t have any help? He had a team that worked on a parked B757 for two days. Try doing some research Jennifer instead of recycling a 2 year-old sensationalized story. This is the kind of story that makes people nervous about flying, for no good reason.

    This was a government test, not a standard hacking operation. And this unauthorized share by a boastful Mr. Hickey was not exactly a good career move.

    Next time, why don’t you mention that in-flight entertainment systems (IFE) and Wi-fi – which is hackers have targeted – are segregated from the software that flies the plane. Hacking an aircraft’s Wi-Fi should not be described as “hacking an aircraft”.

  2. am1108

    October 18, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    TBH, recently it seems that many of the authors on FT have to use clickbait headlines and recycle news… than in previous years. I truly miss FT of the late 2000s, it was much more interesting and people were really helpful, more so than now.

  3. RG1X

    October 21, 2018 at 5:15 am

    “Critical flight systems cannot be accessed from an aeroplane’s non-critical systems”

    System isolation always works perfectly… until it doesn’t. It’s not like this would be the first time this has happened. Hell, it’s even been done (extremely cleverly) in airgapped systems.

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