Researcher Finds Flaw in Satellite Assisted Airline Equipment

By - Source: Reuters

Cyber security researcher Ruben Santamarta has found a way to hack into satellite communications equipment used on passenger flights, Reuters reports. He is able to do so through inflight entertainment systems and WiFi. Santamarta plans to reveal his method Thursday during the Black Hat conference in Las Vegas.

Santamarta figured out how to hack into the equipment by reverse engineering the firmware. He theorizes that once a hacker gains access to the equipment, they can then hack into the plane's avionics equipment and disrupt or modify satellite communications. In turn, that could interfere with the plane's safety systems and navigation. Read: Virtualization Security Tips: Preventing Hyper Jumping

The good news here is that Santamarta has only performed the hack in a controlled environment; he hasn't taken his knowledge and performed the hack on a real plane. What's more, the hack may be quite difficult to perform in "the real world." Still, there's enough of a problem that Santamarta felt that it needed to be uncovered at the hacking event this week.

Cobham Plc, one of the equipment manufacturers, told Reuters that its Aviation 700 aircraft satellite communications equipment, which was the focus of Santamarta's research, can't be used by hackers to disrupt critical systems on an airplane. A Cobham spokesman said that hackers must have physical access to the company's equipment to cause any commotion.

"In the aviation and maritime markets we serve, there are strict requirements restricting such access to authorized personnel only," spokesman Grag Caires told Reuters.

According to the Reuters report, Santamarta published a 25 page research report in April detailing multiple bugs that were found in firmware used in satellite communications equipment. This equipment was made by Cobham, Harris, Hughes, Iridium and Japan Radio Co., and used in a number of industries including aerospace and the military. The Santamarta report included ways in which hackers could launch attacks, but the details won't be provided until he presents the report at Black Hat later this week.

However, one of the problems he noted was that hackers can retrieve passwords used in "hardcoded" log-in credentials, which allows service technicians to access any piece of equipment using the same login and password. Hackers can get the password simply by hacking into the firmware.

Hughes spokeswoman Judy Blake told Reuters that hardcoded credentials are necessary. She also said that the worst a hacker could do was disable the communications link.

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