It's been four years since researcher Ruben Santamarta rocked the security world with his chilling discovery of major vulnerabilities in satellite equipment that could be abused to hijack and disrupt communications links to airplanes, ships, military operations, and industrial facilities.
Santamarta has now proven out those findings and taken his research to the level of terrifying, by successfully hacking into in-flight airplane WiFi networks and satcom equipment from the ground. "As far as I know I will be the first researcher that will demonstrate that it's possible to hack into communications devices on an in-flight aircraft … from the ground," he says.
He accessed on-board WiFi networks including passengers' Internet activity, and also was able to reach the planes' satcom equipment, he says, all of which in his previous research he had concluded – but not proven - was possible. And there's more: "In this new research, we also managed to get access to important communications devices in the aircraft," Santamarta, principal security consultant with IO/Active, says.
That's as much detail about the hack that Santamarta will share publicly before his Black Hat talk, where he plans to demonstrate just how he gained access to the aircraft and on-board satellite communications devices. He'll show how satcom gear could be weaponized as a radio frequency (RF) tool, he says, that ultimately could "pose security risks" to the aircraft.
Santamarta's previous work on hacking an airplane network had been met with some skepticism. "Everybody told us it was impossible. But basically, it's possible, and we [now] have proof and [will] present the proof of that."
He says he used similar satcom hacking techniques to locate multiple NATO military installations in conflict zones, which were exposed on the Internet, and employed similar methods to access maritime vessels' networks at sea, the details of which he'll also cover in his talk.
Not surprisingly, the vulnerability disclosure process associated with the research was, he says, "extremely sensitive." Santamarta contacted all of the affected parties, he says, and ensured that no hacks he performed would put anyone in physical danger, for instance. "We improved … security and safety" with this research, he says.
In his 2014 research, Santamarta provided a report on several possible attack scenarios using the vulnerabilities he had discovered in the firmware of popular satellite ground terminal equipment.
In his latest research he studied other satcom systems and infrastructure and found the usual suspects of industrial Internet of Things flaws: backdoors, insecure protocols, and hard-coded credentials as well as buffer overflows, code injections, and exposed services.
These vulnerabilities "allowed us to take control of these devices and allow anyone to access the satellite services," he says. "We can leverage satcom devices to perform cyber-physical attacks."
But like with Santamarta's previous research, the affected vendors and providers unfortunately aren't all on board with fixes for the newly discovered security holes. "The critical things have been fixed mostly. But there are other significant vulnerabilities that are still there, and that’s a still a problem," he says.
"The satcom environment right now is really a mess. That's one of the reasons we called this talk 'The Last Call for Satcom Security,'" he says. "It's really worrying me what I am seeing in this area."
He declined to discuss in detail just how much damage an attacker could do with the aircraft hack they pulled off, saying: "This has to be explained carefully, and we've got all the technical details backing our claim. It's not an apocalypse, but basically there are some scenarios that are possible" that will be covered at Black Hat, he says.
In his 2014 research, Santamarta found that an in-flight airline WiFi network was vulnerable to malicious behavior via vulnerable Cobham AVIATOR 700 satellite terminals on the WiFi. The danger there was an attacker gaining control over the Satellite Data Unit or the SwiftBroadband Unit interface by taking advantage of the weak password reset feature, hardcoded credentials, or the insecure protocols in the terminal.
"More specifically, a successful attack could compromise control of the satellite link channel used by the Future Air Navigation System (FANS), Controller Pilot Data Link Communications (CPDLC) or Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS)," he wrote in his 2014 research paper. "A malfunction of these subsystems could pose a safety threat for the entire aircraft."
Santamarta's new research illustrates just how an attacker could abuse satcom and other equipment vulnerabilities. He says he spotted hundreds of "exposed" aircraft from multiple airlines, but only focused on a few in his hacking research.
"These are real cases. They are no longer theoretical scenarios," he says of his new research. "We are using vulns in satcom devices to turn those devices into weapons" to trigger cyber-physical effects, he says.
There are two other known airplane-hacking research projects, but neither were accomplished from the ground to a flying plane like Santamarta's. The first was a controversial and disputed one in May of 2015, when security researcher Chris Roberts was accused by the FBI of hacking into an aircraft's controls via the WiFi network from his airplane seat, causing the airplane to briefly climb and move sideways, or laterally. Roberts at the time said the FBI's assessment of his experiment was overblown, and he later reportedly said the charges had been dropped.
A US Department of Homeland Security official in 2017 revealed at a satellite conference that his team had remotely hacked into a parked Boeing 757 at the Atlantic City, NJ, airport, using RF communications.