Panasonic Inflight Entertainment System Vulnerable To Attack

Flaws could theoretically allow access to aircraft control systems, IOActive says in disputed report.

4 Min Read

An inflight entertainment system (IFE) from Panasonic Avionics used by many major airlines, including United Airlines, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Air France contains multiple vulnerabilities that allow attackers to control what passengers see and hear on their in-flight display, IOActive said in a disputed report Tuesday.

Theoretically at least, the vulnerabilities could also give attackers a way to access other systems, including ones critical to the safe operation of an airplane, the security vendor said.

In a statement to Canada’s CTV News Tuesday, Panasonic called IOActive’s research “inaccurate” and “misleading” and accused the security vendor of mixing hypothetical vulnerabilities with specifics about Panasonic’s IFE systems.

“IOActive has chosen to make highly misleading and inflammatory statements suggesting that hackers could 'theoretically' gain access to flight controls by hacking into Panasonic's [in-flight entertainment] systems,” CTV News quoted the statement as saying. Panasonic Avionics has labeled IOActive’s tests as unauthorized.

Ruben Santamarta, a security researcher at IOActive stumbled upon the issue about two years ago when he discovered he could access debug codes directly from a Panasonic IFE he was using on a flight from Warsaw to Dubai.

A subsequent Internet search led to the discovery of literally hundreds of publicly available firmware updates for multiple airline companies that could be exploited by adversaries to gain access to Panasonic’s IFE.

“Upon analyzing backend source code for these airlines and reverse engineering the main binary, I found several interesting functionalities and exploits,” the researcher Ruben Santamarta wrote.

“Debug information helps attackers to get information about the system that shouldn’t be available and that could be helpful to understand undocumented parts of the system and also help in further attacks,” adds Cesar Cerrudo, chief technology officer of IOActive Labs.

The fact that hundreds of updates are available is worrisome, Cerrudo says. “The problem is that the system has many vulnerabilities and attackers can analyze the firmware to identify and later exploit the vulnerabilities,” he says. “If the systems were secure then having the firmware available shouldn’t be a problem, but that’s not usually the case.”

Among the vulnerabilities that Santamarta discovered were those that enabled arbitrary file access, SQL injection attacks, and a complete bypass of credit card checks for passengers making inflight purchases.

The flaws give attackers a way to disrupt what a passenger might see on their entertainment system, by for example spoofing altitude, speed, and route information. An attacker would also potentially be able to exploit the flaws to control an aircraft’s PA and lighting system. “If all of these attacks are chained, a malicious actor may create a baffling and disconcerting situation for passengers,” Santamarta said.

The Panasonic IFE, like other inflight entertainment systems consists of three components. One of them is the CrewApp component that allows crew members to control cabin lights, use the PA system and other features. The second is a SeatApp component that lets passengers watch movies, play games, connect to the Internet, make purchases, and take other actions while the third component is the backend server which controls the IFE system.

IOActive’s initial analysis showed that none of the components are designed to resist a sustained attack by a skilled adversary, he said.

In theory at least, IFE systems are supposed to be deployed in a manner where even if the entire system fails or is compromised, it should have no impact on flight safety. The aircraft’s main control system is supposed to be always physically isolated from passenger entertainment and airline information services, so any weakness in the IFE cannot be exploited to gain access to the aircraft control domain.

In reality, such physical separation doesn’t always happen. Optical data diodes and electronic gateway modules in some aircraft physically connect the aircraft control domain with the other data networks on the plane, Cerrudo says. In such situations it is possible, theoretically at least, to exploit the IFE to gain access to critical flight systems, Santamarta said.

He said that IOActive has successfully compromised electronic gateway modules in other non-flight vehicles.  The ability for attackers to cross the “red line” between a passenger entertainment system and an aircraft control system depends on the manner in which specific devices and software is configured in an airplane, he said.

“Using the in-flight entertainment system to attack aircraft isn’t a new concept,” said Tim Erlin, director of IT security at Tripwire. Security researchers have been exploring the vulnerability of aircraft to such attacks ever since USB and RJ45 ports started becoming available in aircraft, he said in a statement.

“The security research community and aviation industry are clearly at odds over the feasibility and likelihood of using the in-flight entertainment system to actually affect aircraft controls,” he said in a statement. “It would be a solid step forward to see cooperation instead of conflict.”

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About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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