Securing the skies: Cybersecurity in aviation

From x-ray checkpoints to limited liquids brought onboard, the aviation industry has become famous for its strict security measures. But the industry and its critics are beginning to realize that the airline industry’s weak link may be cybersecurity. This blog will examine those weaknesses and the possible future of security for the industry.

It’s no secret that the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) introduces a host of new cybersecurity challenges and vulnerabilities. A recent report from AT&T surveyed the data risks – and the physical threats – that compromised IoT systems could pose. Few of those risk scenarios are more frightening than that of a hacker taking over the controls of an in-flight plane.

That scenario seemed to be playing out just over a year ago, in April 2015, when a passenger onboard a flight tweeted that he had tapped into the plane’s operational systems by hacking the in-flight entertainment system. A subsequent FBI investigation found that the hacker claimed to have made a plane climb and move sideways on an earlier flight. Many experts soon disputed these claims, but they were enough to shine a spotlight on the growing dependency of modern aircraft on digital controls and multiple networks.

Today, there are a number of industry and government efforts underway to bolster the security of aviation systems. In some instances, the efforts are rearguard actions necessary to correct vulnerabilities that would never have existed if security had been a top priority built in “from the ground up.” Other initiatives are more forward-looking, and seek to ensure that the diverse collection of players that make up the aviation industry are communicating and coordinated in their efforts to secure both in-flight and ground-based digital systems.

Among the most notable of these cybersecurity programs:

  • Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (A-ISAC) – Established in 2012 with backing from aircraft manufacturer Boeing, the A-ISAC aims to serve as a focal point for security information sharing among its growing community of members – airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers, equipment suppliers, service providers, technology providers, infrastructure providers and/or general aviation entities.
  • Cyber Information Sharing and Collaboration Program (CISCP) – A cross-industry program established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, CISCP has moved from pilot stage to full implementation, and includes government intelligence analysts, airline representatives and airport officials working to share avionics-related security information.
  • Air Domain Intelligence Integration and Analysis Center (ADIAC) – Hosted by the Transportation Security Administration and sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the ADIAC reportedly seeks to serve the same purpose as the broad-based CISCP, but with a laser-focus on cybersecurity information sharing in the aviation sector.

Even with these and other industry and government initiatives, ensuring the security of airborne and ground-based aviation systems presents daunting challenges. Much as in the broader business environment, the aviation sector – including passenger aircraft – are increasingly dependent upon software-driven systems, Internet connectivity and trustworthy digital data. With IoT systems bridging the digital and physical worlds, the dangers of security breaches don’t stop at data loss or exposure. Those dangers extend into the realm of equipment manipulation and, potentially, loss of life.

It’s encouraging that both industry players and government agencies are taking the cybersecurity threat to aviation seriously. Work still remains, however. The efforts in the U.S. to counter this threat must be coordinated with similar initiatives around the world. There are many moving pieces – literally as well as figuratively – in the aviation sector, and they cross every international boundary. It’s important that aviation cybersecurity efforts, now that they’ve taken flight, continue to be attract the global attention, funding and coordination they deserve.

Dwight Davis has reported on and analyzed computer and communications industry trends, technologies and strategies for more than 35 years. All opinions expressed are his own. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.

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