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Hacker Commandeers Airplanes

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What happens when a famous and talented computer hacker discovers a way to take control of your airplane and changes its route? Within the past few months, the FBI have been investigating Chris Roberts’ claims that he can and has taken control of a plane using the plane’s in-flight entertainment systems to do so.

In February, 2015 Roberts was interviewed by an FBI agent about his claims. Roberts is said to have tapped into 15-20 flights from 2011-2014, going so far as to adjust a plane’s lateral flight path in one of these manipulations. This is the procedure Roberts explained in the interview:

First, you need to gain physical access to the Seat Electronic Box that can be found under passenger seats on public airplanes. If you can get into that box, you can access the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems on aircrafts. Public access to this box is where the exploit begins.

From there, Roberts was able to use a modified Cat 6 cable to connect his personal laptop to the IFE system. After connecting to IFE, he was able to access other systems- including the Thrust Management Computer. After that he simply overwrote some code and inserted a climb command on one engine, causing the plane to turn- all while aboard the plane and in a passenger seat. Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson nowhere in sight.

After these claims were made, Roberts was reminded by the FBI that access without authorization of any airplane network was highly illegal. Roberts agreed to avoid hacking into airplanes in the future, but told the FBI that he simply wanted to bring attention to the vulnerabilities in order to see them fixed.

Come mid-April, Roberts seems to have forgotten his promise, as an FBI investigation of a United Airlines flight from Denver to Chicago found more SEB boxes had been tampered with. Coincidently, Roberts was a passenger on this plane and tweeted about vulnerabilities on the plane during the flight, so the evidence points directly at him. Roberts was taken into custody upon arrival in New York from his Chicago-Syracuse flight, but has yet to be charged with any crimes.