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How to Hack an Airplane? There's an (Android) App for That

April 12, 2013 at 3:06 PM | by | ()

We were going to use this post to turn today's US Airways meltdown at PHL—luggage left in the rain, flights boarding at random times, etc—into a Teachable Moment about travel social media. Telling people to work with your on-the-ground reps is pretty much the definition of using Twitter wrong. But we're so blindingly furious at the airline right now that it's probably better for everyone to count to 10.

Maybe next week, after our blood pressure has returned to sub-heart attack levels, we'll have a group discussion about why telling people that they should know better than to wait in your airline's airline lounge isn't a great idea.

Anyway, this story—about how Android phones might be able to hack airplanes—is, first, real news, and second, interesting. So we're going to put aside our theory that US Airways reps are sadistic travel trolls determined to ruin our lives. Instead, how about how an Android app may or may not be able to "modify approximately everything related to the navigation of the plane"? Added the hacker who wrote the software: "that includes a lot of nasty things."

We spent more than a few minutes reading up on the details of the hack (because we've got a lot of time to burn today, you see, on account of the aforementioned incident). Hugo Teso, a security researcher for the German IT consultancy N.Runs, gave a presentation claiming to show how a properly amplified Android phone could break into the software that guides commercial aircraft. He's not talking about confusing the airplanes, which would be bad enough, though the software can do that as well.

Teso's claim is more dramatic; by exploiting holes in flight management software, he can actually tell airplanes what to do. He can make them turn left. Or turn right. Or dip their nose and dive into the ground. We still haven't untangled everything, but it sounds like what he did was combine the ability to send data over a relatively insecure communication channel with bugs that turned his "communication" into commands. Good times.

Airline safety groups say Teso's trick could never work on a real airplane, and that basically he has no idea what he's talking about. Fingers crossed they're right. If he's just flat making things up, he'd at least have something in common with the PHL US Air people.

So angry, we are, right now.

[Photo: Dirk-Jan Kraan / Flickr]

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