Aviation experts dispute hacker’s claim he seized control of airliner mid-flight

Chris Roberts’s claim he accessed in-flight entertainment and flight systems from his seat is rubbished by Boeing and aviation experts

Security and aviation experts have rubbished claims that a hacker gained access to a plane’s flight controls through the in-flight entertainment system.

Hacker Chris Roberts claimed he was able to break into the in-flight entertainment system up to 20 times on separate flights and that on one flight he was able to make the plane “climb” and “move sideways” by accessing flight control systems from a laptop in his seat.

The claims were revealed by a search warrant application issued by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation after Roberts was banned from a plane for tweeting about hacking into systems.

Isolated systems

A spokesperson for Boeing, the manufacturer of the plane allegedly hacked, said that the in-flight entertainment system and flight and navigation systems are isolated from each other.

“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,” said the Boeing spokesperson.

A senior law enforcement official told Bloomberg that investigators looking into the claims did not believe such attempts to control a plane could be successful.

Peter Lemme, chairman of the Ku and Ka satellite communications standards toldindustry blog Runway Girl Network: “The claim that the thrust management system mode was changed without a command from the pilot through the mode control panel, or while coupled to the flight management system is inconceivable.”

He added that the links between the entertainment system and flight control systems “are not not capable of changing automatic flight control modes”.

Experts are sceptical that any alteration to flight systems occurred because the pilots and flight crew would have noticed, any adjustments would have been recorded and reported and an investigation into the systems launched.

Beyond whether Roberts was capable of hacking into flight systems, his claims of compromising the in-flight entertainment systems between 15 and 20 times are also disputed.

In-flight entertainment consultant Michael Planey said: “We have seen multiple instances of passengers being restrained by fellow passengers or flights diverted because a passenger is behaving abnormally. I find it nearly impossible to believe Roberts could have done this type of an act over a dozen times and never had a flight crew or fellow passenger notice – that part stretches the imagination.”

Roberts now claims that his comments were taken out of context and misinterpreted and is now being represented by the US Electronic Frontier Foundation amid an ongoing investigation by US law enforcement agencies.


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