7 min read

At the Black Hat 2019 security conference in Las Vegas, Ruben Santamarta, an IOActive Principal Security Consultant in his presentation said that there were vulnerabilities in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s components, which could be misused by hackers. The security flaws are in the code for a component known as a Crew Information Service/Maintenance System.

“The CIS/MS is responsible for applications like maintenance systems and the so-called electronic flight bag, a collection of navigation documents and manuals used by pilots,” according to Bruce Schneier’s (public-interest technologist) blog

Boeing, however, strongly disagreed with Santamarta’s findings saying that such an attack is not possible and rejected Santamarta’s “claim of having discovered a potential path to pull it off.”

SantaMarta says, “An attacker could potentially pivot from the in-flight entertainment system to the CIS/MS to send commands to far more sensitive components that control the plane’s safety-critical systems, including its engine, brakes, and sensors.”

According to Wired, “Santa­marta himself admits that he doesn’t have a full enough picture of the aircraft—or access to a $250 million jet—to confirm his claims.”

In a whitepaper Santamarta released earlier this month, he points out that in September 2018, a publicly accessible Boeing server was identified using a simple Google search, exposing multiple files. On further analysis, the exposed files contained parts of the firmware running on the Crew Information System/Maintenance System (CIS/MS) and Onboard Networking System (ONS) for the Boeing 787 and 737 models respectively. These included documents, binaries, and configuration files. Also, a Linux-based Virtual Machine used to allow engineers to access part of the Boeing’s network access was also available. 

“The research presented in this paper is based on the analysis of information from public sources, collected documents, and the reverse engineering work performed on the 787’s CIS/MS firmware, which has been developed by Honeywell, based on a regular (nonavionics, non-certified, and non-ARINC-653-compliant) VxWorks 6.2 RTOS (x86) running on a Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) CPU board (Pentium M),” the whitepaper states. 

Santamarta identified three networks in the 787, the Open Data Network (ODN), the Isolated Data Network (IDN), and the Common Data Network (CDN).

  • The ODN talks with the outside, handling communication with potentially dangerous devices.
  • The IDN handles secure devices, but not necessarily ones that are connected to aircraft safety systems; a flight data recorder is an example.
  • Santamarta described the CDN as the “backbone communication of the entire network,” connecting to electronics that could impact the safety of the aircraft.

According to PCMag, “Santamarta was clear that there are serious limitations to his research, since he did not have access to a 787 aircraft. Still, IOActive is confident in its findings. “We have been doing this for many years, we know how to do this kind of research.”

SantaMarta said “We’re not saying it’s doomsday, or that we can take a plane down. But we can say: This shouldn’t happen.”

Boeing, on the other hand, denies the claims put forward by SantaMarta and says that the claims do not represent any real threat of a cyberattack. In a statement to Wired, Boeing writes, “IOActive’s scenarios cannot affect any critical or essential airplane system and do not describe a way for remote attackers to access important 787 systems like the avionics system.”

The statement further reads, “IOActive reviewed only one part of the 787 network using rudimentary tools, and had no access to the larger system or working environments. IOActive chose to ignore our verified results and limitations in its research, and instead made provocative statements as if they had access to and analyzed the working system. While we appreciate responsible engagement from independent cybersecurity researchers, we’re disappointed in IOActive’s irresponsible presentation.”

“Although we do not provide details about our cybersecurity measures and protections for security reasons, Boeing is confident that its airplanes are safe from cyberattack,” the company’s statement concludes.

In a follow-up call with WIRED, Boeing’s company spokesperson said that “in investigating IOActive’s claims, Boeing had gone so far as to put an actual Boeing 787 in “flight mode” for testing, and then had its security engineers attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities that Santamarta had exposed. They found that they couldn’t carry out a successful attack.” 

Further, according to Wired, Boeing also consulted with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Homeland Security about Santamarta’s attack hypothesis. The DHS didn’t respond to a request for comment, but an FAA spokesperson wrote in a statement to WIRED that it’s “satisfied with the manufac­turer’s assessment of the issue.”

The Boeing fleet has been in the news for quite some time ever since Boeing’s grounded 737 MAX 8 aircraft killed a total of 346 people in two fatal air crashes in October last year and in March this year. 

Stefan Savage, a computer science professor at the University of California at San Diego, said,”The claim that one shouldn’t worry about a vulnerability because other protections prevent it from being exploited has a very bad history in computer security.” Savage is currently working with other academic researchers on an avionics cybersecurity testing platform. “Typically, where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he further adds. 

Per Wired, “The Aviation Industry Sharing and Analysis Center shot back in a press release that his findings were based on “technical errors.” Santamarta countered that the A-ISAC was “killing the messenger,” attempting to discredit him rather than address his research.”

PCMag writes, “Santamarta is skeptical. He conceded that it’s possible Boeing added mitigations later on, but says there was no evidence of such protections in the code he analyzed.”

A reader on Schneier’s blog post writes that Boeing should allow SantaMarta’s team to conduct a test, for the betterment of the passengers, “I really wish Boeing would just let them test against an actual 787 instead of immediately dismissing it. In the long run, it would work out way better for them, and even the short term PR would probably be a better look.”

Another reader commented about lax FAA standards on schneier’s blog post, “Reading between the lines, this would infer that FAA/EASA certification requires no penetration testing of an aircrafts systems before approving a new type. That sounds like “straight to the scene of the accident” to me…”

A user who is responsible for maintenance of 787’s wrote on HackerNews, “Unlike the security researcher, I do have access to multiple 787s as I am one of many people responsible for maintaining them. I’m obviously not going to attempt to exploit the firmware on an aircraft for obvious reasons, but the security researcher’s notion that you can “pivot” from the in flight entertainment to anything to do with aircraft operation is pure fantasy.” He further added, “These systems are entirely separate, including the electricity that controls the systems. This guy is preying on individuals’ lack of knowledge about aircraft mechanics in order to promote himself.”

Another user on HackerNews shared, “I was flying about a year ago and was messing with the in flight entertainment in a 787. It was pretty easy to figure out how to get to a boot menu in the in flight entertainment. I was thinking “huh, this seems like maybe a way in”. Seeing how the in-flight displays navigational data it must be on the network as the flight systems. I’m sure there is some kind of segregation but it’s probably not ultimately secure.”

Savage tells Wired, “This is a reminder that planes, like cars, depend on increasingly complex networked computer systems. They don’t get to escape the vulnerabilities that come with this.”

To know more about this news, read the whitepaper by the IOActive team. You can also head over to Wired’s detailed analysis

Read Next

“Deep learning is not an optimum solution for every problem faced”: An interview with Valentino Zocca

4 common challenges in Web Scraping and how to handle them

Microsoft workers protest the lethal use of Hololens2 in the $480m deal with US military

A Data science fanatic. Loves to be updated with the tech happenings around the globe. Loves singing and composing songs. Believes in putting the art in smart.