Wi-Fi security – can inflight internet REALLY hack planes?

Aircraft communications equipment can be hacked via Wi-Fi security and in-flight entertainment systems, allowing access to  communications systems aboard aircrafts in flight – and other satellite systems, including military devices are also vulnerable. The revelations about weaknesses in satellite communication systems are one of the most talked-about presentations at the security conference, according to Reuters.

The vulnerability lies in satellite communications systems used widely in passenger aircraft, shipping and other industries – and if proven true, could prompt a global overhaul of those systems.

Black Hat is no stranger to world-changing hacks – this year has seen the revelation of a technique that would allow any USB port to become a portal to inject invisible malware, or extract data. CNET described Ruben Santamarta’s talk as “the hacking presentation that will get the most attention”.

Santamarta’s presentation focuses on major brands, and widely used systems – and he claims that 100% of systems under test had vulnerabilities. Weak encryption and “backdoors” which could allow hackers control over communication are rife in all systems under test, according to RT. Some attacks can be performed with an SMS, Santamarta claims.

“These vulnerabilities allow remote, unauthenticated attackers to fully compromise the affected products. In certain cases no user interaction is required to exploit the vulnerability, just sending a simple SMS or specially crafted message from one ship to another ship can do it,” Santamarta says.

“Ships, aircraft, military personnel, emergency services, media services, and industrial facilities (oil rigs, gas pipelines, water treatment plants, wind turbines, substations, etc.) could all be impacted by these vulnerabilities.”

Wi-Fi security: A deadly weakness?

“These devices are wide open. The goal of this talk is to help change that situation,” Santamarta told Reuters. Santamarta outlined several scenarios where the attacks could cause serious damage or loss of life.

Russia Today quotes Santamarta as saying, “The ability of the victims to communicate vital data or ask for support to perform a counter-attack is limited or even cut off. In the worst-case scenario, loss of lives is possible.”

Military communications at risk?

Among the systems tested were BGAN satellite units used in the field by the military. One unit, used by NATO forces, could allow an attacker to stage ambushes against forces. “The vulnerabilities found in the RF-7800B terminal allow an attacker to install malicious firmware or execute arbitrary code. A potential real-world attack could occur.”

Another model, in use by forces today, was vulnerable to attacks which exposed units’ GPS coordinates: “An attacker can take complete control of these devices by exploiting a weakness in their authentication mechanism using either direct access or scripted attacks (malware).”

The tests were carried out in the laboratory, and based on reverse-engineering the firmware (software similar to a computer OS) of various systems for air-to-ground and ship-to-ship communication.

At least one company has already come forward to state that the Wi-Fi hack used would be impossible in a “real world” situation. Other vendors have dismissed the risks as “very small”.

Author Rob Waugh, We Live Security

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