Hacker admits hijacking plane mid-air: FBI

Security researcher Chris Roberts. Photo: Fox News

A security researcher hijacked an airplane's engines after hacking its in-flight entertainment systems, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Chris Roberts, a well-known US security researcher, told FBI agents in February that he'd hacked in-flight entertainment systems on over a dozen flights and on one occasion hijacked an aircraft's thrust management computer and briefly altered its course. 

"[Roberts] stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights," FBI agent Mark Hurley wrote in a warrant application filed in April and obtained by technology publication Wired on Friday. 

The FBI seized Roberts' computers and questioned him after he was escorted off a United Airlines flight last month, because he'd posted a tweet — apparently in jest — hinting he could tap into the aircraft's crew alert system and cause passenger oxygen masks to drop. 


According to the document, during interviews in February and March, Roberts said he'd compromised in-flight entertainment systems on 15 to 20 flights between 2011 and 2014. Each time he'd pried open the cover of the electronics box located under passenger seats and would connect his laptop to the system with an ethernet cable. He'd also scan the network for security flaws and monitored communications from the cockpit. 

Hurley said the FBI found that the electronics box under the seat in front of Roberts' showed "signs of tampering". 

Roberts was removed from the flight on the same day the US Government Accountability Office released a report warning that hackers could bring down a plane by using onboard Wi-Fi systems

Roberts' alleged admissions contradict earlier claims to the media that he'd only ever hacked virtualised aircraft network systems. 

Peers in an industry that often pushes legal boundaries when probing for security flaws said Roberts had crossed a line. 

"Connecting your laptop to an in-flight media system or anything on an actual plane with people on it is not the way to conduct security research," Ken Westin, a security analyst from Tripwire told Fairfax.

"To also tweet a 'joke' about hacking a plane using specific technical details is also incredibly irresponsible I think," he added.

Alex Stamos, chief information security officer of Yahoo, tweeted: "You cannot promote the (true) idea that security research benefits humanity while defending research that endangered hundreds of innocents."

Roberts hadn't responded to Fairfax's request for comment on Sunday, however, he noted on Twitter on Friday that comments in the warrant application were taken "out of context". 

"That paragraph that's in there is one paragraph out of a lot of discussions, so there is context that is obviously missing which obviously I can't say anything about," he toldWired.

Details of the warrant emerged as United Airlines launched a new program that will reward researchers with up to one million frequent flyer miles when they report to it new security flaws in its apps, websites and portals but not in-flight systems. 

The program takes a leaf from bug bounties run by Google and Microsoft, which collectively paid millions of dollars last year to researchers.

United's program is a first for the airline industry but also follows a similar program recently launched by US money transfer giant Western Union with Australian-founded BugCrowd. 

BugCrowd's founder Casey Ellis told Fairfax that Australian companies think that paying hackers for reporting bugs is a "crazy" idea from Silicon Valley. 

"Australian companies aren't doing it. If they are even aware of the idea, they still see it as a 'crazy valley tech company' thing," Ellis said.  

Telstra, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Optus told Fairfax that they were not considering implementing a bug bounty program. Qantas did not respond to Fairfax's questions. 

United Airline's program explicitly outlaws "any testing on aircraft or aircraft systems such as in-flight entertainment or in-flight Wi-Fi". 

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