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4/12/2013
12:43 PM
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FAA Dismisses Android App Airplane Takeover

Demonstrated training software exploits don't work against the flight management systems installed in planes, say airline regulators and avionics manufacturers.

The Federal Aviation Administration has dismissed a Spanish security researcher's claims that an airplane flight management system used by pilots could be taken over by an Android app running on a local mobile device and used to seize control of an airplane's navigation systems or autopilot.

The warning of exploitable vulnerabilities in flight management system software was sounded Wednesday by Spanish security researcher Hugo Teso, who works for consultancy N.Runs in Germany. Teso, an avid pilot who's also certified to fly commercial aircraft, demonstrated how a "PlaneSploit" Android app he built, together with an antenna, could be used to locally spoof ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) data received by FMS software, and adjust the heading, altitude and speed of an airplane.

But Teso's presentation carried a caveat: the vulnerabilities he exploited existed in PC-based ACARS training software. Purposefully, Teso chose to not test his exploits against systems in actual airplanes.

[ For more on the purported Android-based takedown hack, see Airplane Takeover Demonstrated Via Android App. ]

The good news, according to the FAA, is that systems certified for use on flight decks are immune to the exploits detailed by Teso. "The FAA is aware that a German information technology consultant has alleged he has detected a security issue with the Honeywell NZ-2000 Flight Management System (FMS) using only a desktop computer," read a statement released Thursday by the agency. "The FAA has determined that the hacking technique described during a recent computer security conference does not pose a flight safety concern because it does not work on certified flight hardware."

Teso had suggested that feeding incorrect information to ACARS would lead to the plane's autopilot applying that information to alter heading, pitch or altitude. But the FAA said that's not possible. "The described technique cannot engage or control the aircraft's autopilot system using the FMS or prevent a pilot from overriding the autopilot," the FAA's statement said. "Therefore, a hacker cannot obtain 'full control of an aircraft' as the technology consultant has claimed."

The FAA's statement squares with information released Thursday by the European Aviation Safety Administration (EASA), which noted that "this presentation was based on a PC training simulator and did not reveal potential vulnerabilities on actual flying systems."

"There are major differences between a PC-based training FMS software and an embedded FMS software," said EASA. "In particular, the FMS simulation software does not have the same overwriting protection and redundancies that is included in the certified flight software."

Contacted for comment on Teso's research, two of the potentially affected manufacturers voiced a similar perspective. "Today's certified avionics systems are designed and built with high levels of redundancy and security," said Rockwell Collins spokeswoman Pam Tvrdy-Cleary via email. "The research by Hugo Teso involves testing with virtual aircraft in a lab environment, which is not analogous to certified aircraft and systems operating in regulated airspace."

Likewise, Honeywell spokesman Scott Sayres emphasized that the company's certified FMS has security and safety safeguards designed to prevent data corruption and data overwriting.

What's not clear to date, however, is whether the attack won't work on certified flight management systems because it's running software that's completely different to what Teso tested, or because of the overwriting protection, redundancies and other security and safety controls built into certified systems. The worry with the latter scenario is that the exploits that have been identified to date could be used as stepping stones to discovering new types of exploits.

N.Runs first detailed the FMS training software vulnerabilities it discovered to the European Aviation Safety Administration (EASA) several weeks ago, which distributed the information to the FAA as well as to affected manufacturers, who were named as being Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and Thales. (Thales didn't respond to a request for comment on Teso's research.) Teso said he procured the FMS hardware and software he tested over the past three years largely via eBay.

Teso wasn't immediately available to respond to the FAA and EASA statements. But Teso's supervisor at N.Runs, security researcher Roland Ehlies, suggested that the consultancy is trying to ensure that the vulnerabilities identified in the FMS software don't pose a threat.

"Aviation agencies and aircraft system manufacturers have even deeper knowledge about the inner workings of the affected systems," Ehlies said via email. "Our goal is to share the knowledge with the above-mentioned parties so that we can work together to understand the real implications of our findings and try to fix them and to prevent that additional security issues arise on aviation relayed technologies."

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MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/15/2013 | 4:40:01 PM
re: FAA Dismisses Android App Airplane Takeover
So it comes down to a matter of credibility. A government agency (credible ?) making a public statement on a possible vulnerability outside their field of expertise (software) that if true would certainly be cause for concern and desiring to downplay the possibility (credible ?). A trained cyber security researcher with a reputible firm (credible ?) backed by specific subject matter knowledge (certified pilot) that publishes a possible exploit specific to a certain software product utilized by certain aircraft (credible ?). Ummmm, hmmmm, well that's a difficult decision on who to trust.
Andolasoft
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Andolasoft,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/15/2013 | 2:56:39 PM
re: FAA Dismisses Android App Airplane Takeover
Android Mobile Application Development has evolved to become the foremost option for the developers ...... ( www.andolasoft.com )
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/15/2013 | 1:45:23 AM
re: FAA Dismisses Android App Airplane Takeover
It's possible to take a commercial-grade aircraft operated by the Air Force or another branch of the armed forces and try this in a secluded area. Or, even better, take an stockpiled 737, upgrade it to the latest hardware, build it out as a remotely controlled aircraft and try out these exploits...

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/15/2013 | 1:43:17 AM
re: FAA Dismisses Android App Airplane Takeover
I think the question here is... "Are you so sure?"

Let's think about this for a minute from a risk management standpoint - if Mr. Teso's research shows that he can modify the control configuration of a simulator which is based on the actual flight management system in use, wouldn't it make sense to take his research and try it in a controlled environment analogous to the simulator but on a real aircraft? What's the cost of that flight vs. the lawsuits involved when someone actually does "solve the puzzle" and ends up landing an Airbus or a Boeing without a runway?

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
eafpres1
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eafpres1,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/13/2013 | 4:03:21 PM
re: FAA Dismisses Android App Airplane Takeover
I can see many reasons the training software, which runs on a laptop, would be quite different from the "hardened" software. It has to be ported to run on the processor in the laptop within an operating system which is surely different than that in the real avionics. It does not (presumably) receive any actual data, so these are simulated.

Look at this another way--if you had a made for purpose secure communication module in an aviation environment, and you were asked to get a version to run on a laptop under, say, Windows 7, would you commit that you could keep it secure? I doubt it.

What would eliminate all the debate would be to demonstrate his method works on a real aircraft. That, of course, would require some special permission as it is illegal to intentionally disrupt such communications in US airspace. So your points about the FAA's motivations are probably correct, the result being not that we can be sure there is a problem, but only that we are unlikely to know the true answers.
sswigart97201
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sswigart97201,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/12/2013 | 6:19:02 PM
re: FAA Dismisses Android App Airplane Takeover
A best practice in software development would be to use as close to the same software as possible in production and in simulators. If you have already developed hardened software for use in aircraft, why would you strip that hardening (buffer overrun protection, etc) out for simulator software? You wouldn't. This article also doesn't dispute that many of the data streams to/from the aircraft are unencrypted which would make spoofing possible. Finally, assuming systems are vulnerable, what incentive would the FAA and aircraft manufacturers have to admit it? The FAA assurances ring hollow in this one.
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