BLACK HAT USA – Las Vegas – Ruben Santamarta was flying from Madrid to Copenhagen in November 2017 on a Norwegian Airlines flight when he decided to inspect the plane's Wi-Fi network security. So he launched Wireshark from his laptop and began monitoring the network.
Santamarta noted "some weird things" happening. First off, his internal IP address was assigned a public, routable IP address, and then, more disconcerting, he suddenly noticed random network scans on his computer. It turned out the plane's satellite modem data unit, or MDU, was exposed and rigged with the Swordfish backdoor, and a router from a Gafgyt IoT botnet was reaching out to the satcom modem on the in-flight airplane, scanning for new bot recruits.
The Internet of Things (IoT) botnet code didn't appear to have infected any of the satcom terminals on that plane or others, according to Santamarta, but it demonstrated how exposed the equipment was to potential malware infections. "This botnet was not prepared to infect VxWorks. So, fortunately, it was no risk for the aircraft," he said.
That was one of the long-awaited details Santamarta, principal security consultant at IOActive, shared today of his research on how he was able to exploit vulnerabilities in popular satellite communications systems that he had first reported in 2014. The flaws – which include backdoors, insecure protocols, and network misconfigurations – in the equipment affect hundreds of commercial airplanes flown by Southwest, Norwegian, and Icelandair airlines. Satcom equipment used in the maritime industry and the military also are affected by the vulns.
Santamarta emphasized that while the vulnerabilities could allow hackers to remotely wrest control of an aircraft's in-flight Wi-Fi, there are no safety threats to airplanes with such attacks. The attack can't reach a plane's safety systems due to the way the networks are isolated and configured. But an attacker could access not only the in-flight Wi-Fi network, but also the personal devices of passengers and crew members.
He also found the flaws in satellite earth stations and antenna on ships and in earth stations used by the US military in conflict zones.
"It can disrupt, intercept, and modify" satcom operations from the ground, he said.
Meantime, in his research he also found a Mirai botnet-infected antenna control unit on a maritime vessel. "There's malware already infecting vessels," he said.
Santamarta also exposed some serious physical safety risks of radio frequency (RF) heating that could cause burns or other physical damage or injury, and found the US military had satcom equipment exposed on the Internet. "You could get their GPS position" in some conflict zones, he said, declining to divulge any vuln details until all of the sites are remediated.
Santamarta's research was a massive coordinated disclosure process involving the aviation industry, satellite equipment vendors, and other parties.
Jeffrey Troy, executive director of the Aviation-ISAC, said in a press event yesterday previewing Santamarta's presentation that Santamarta shared his research with aviation experts who specialize in satellite communications for aircraft. "Then he learned more from the industry about his research," Troy said.
Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio