Do airline travelers need to start worrying about hackers? Esti Peshin, head of the cyber division at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), certainly thinks so.
"Commercial airliners are exposed to cyber attacks," she said.
It was only a year ago that a hacker grounded 10 Lot Polish airlines planes by disrupting their flight plan systems. A month beforehand, a Spanish military cargo plane crashed and killed four crewmembers after three out of four of the computers which control the engines were accidentally wiped. That same week hacker Chris Roberts was arrested in the United States after boasting that he was able to take control of the navigation system of the plane he was on simply by hacking into the in flight entertainment system. And these are only a few of the examples of the threats that Peshin describes.
According to her, "there isn't enough coordination between the airport authorities, the airlines, and the airplane manufacturers. Some of the systems they use for these planes are based on simple Windows operating systems, and were created at a time when no one worried about hackers (hacking into airplanes)."
My home computer has anti-virus software. Are you saying that the plane taking me to Thailand next month doesn't have any?
"There are standards which define the resilience of an airplane's electronic systems against hacking attacks, but it's just one link in the chain. Throughout the flight, an aircraft is in contact with air traffic control systems and airline systems which send it a lot of information. Most flights today are flown on autopilot, and the autopilot relies on this information. Basically, pilots today are only flying the plane during takeoff and landing, and stay (in the cockpit) just in case something goes wrong."
Chris Roberts claimed that he was able to get around the security systems of the plane's computers.
"And he was arrested and interrogated by the FBI who took his claims very seriously. The US congress is currently discussing a law which will obligate airline companies to report on any cyber attacks against them, but this is just the first step that the authorities need to take."
Is there a problem in airports too?
"A hacker can hack into various airport systems and shut them down – shut down the checked bag x-ray system for example – which can put planes in danger. But a cyber attack isn't just hackers who are trying to take down planes. It could be some 16 year old kid who wants to impress his girlfriend and send all of the luggage on a particular flight to Japan. Or it could be someone who is hired by one airline to wreak electronic havoc on another airline. Can you imagine if all of a sudden all 400 passengers on a flight are signed up to receive a vegan meal? It won't bring down a plane, but it will seriously damage the airline's reputation."
IAI is one of the largest producers of drones in the world. Isn't the danger a lot bigger when it comes to drones?
"There still aren't pilotless planes capable of transporting hundreds of passengers, but the issue of cyber security is without a doubt slowing the transition of commercial airliners from piloted to pilotless – even when it comes to cargo planes."
With all of this knowledge, are you still able to sleep on planes?
"Of course! I fly all the time for work. I need to be able to sleep on them."