When many think about air travel and security, particularly in the United States, what primarily comes to mind are the physical security checkpoints run by the Transportation Security Administration. While every square centimeter of your luggage and person are examined before you set foot on a plane, what about security measures to counter cyberattacks in aviation? 

This, unfortunately, is a little murkierAccording to the Center for Internet Security, the number of cyberattacks targeting airports continues to grow. Here’s a short list of recent attacks: 

  • Austrian aircraft industry supplier FACC reported a cyberfraud loss of $54 million after falling victim to a whaling attack, also known as business email compromise and CEO fraud.  
  • Suspicious malware was found in a computer in the IT network of Ukraine’s main airport in Boryspil, which could have caused chaos for the 7 million people who pass through this airport every year.  
  • A cyberattack at Istanbul Ataturk airport disrupted passport control, causing mass passenger chaos.  
  • United Airlines and American Airlines were attacked by a Chinese hacking group, stealing millions of travel records. 
  • A security researcher hacked the in-flight entertainment system of an airplane and overwrote code on the plane’s Thrust Management Computer while aboard the flight, issuing a climb command and making the plane briefly change course.  
  • A cyberattack on flight-planning computers at an airport in Poland led to 10 flights canceled and 15 others grounded for several hours, affecting 1,400 passengers.  

Airports and the global airline industry are tempting targets for cyberattacks given the interconnectivity of cyberspace and global travel. Considered Critical National Infrastructure, aviation systems are vital to the daily economic and social operations of any given country. Successful cyberattacks in this industry could prove disastrous, impacting the global economy, business continuity, and the plans of individual travelers. Information theft could also be used for commercial gain by rival airports or airlines. 

Potential threats could come to Air Traffic Management and Communications Navigation Surveillance systems, which could have very real impacts on flight operations: grounding those set to depart, and posing a crisis for those mid-flight. Even though pilots are trained to use manual navigation techniques, most modern aircraft have digital-only computer displays. If those were affected, pilots could find themselves flying completely blind in crowded airspace. Passport control is another vulnerability. Global databases are vital to checking travelers’ identification, which is especially important for ensuring terrorists do not slip between borders.  

Right now, there is no overarching global cybersecurity standard for the aviation industry. Most cyberprotection systems in the U.S. are certified using case-by-case risk assessments, which require regulators to expend a lot of resources.  There are no strict requirements on reporting these incidents. The Government Accountability Office released a report that found “significant security control weaknesses” in the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) systems – so weak that hackers could disrupt or reroute the nearly 3,000 U.S. flights in the air at any given moment.  

Last year, the FAA started to develop a comprehensive cybersecurity protection regime for aircraft, seeking to cover everything from commercial jetliners to small private planesHowever, it is still a work in progress – and a race against time. The aviation industry relies on years-long development cycles. Can the industry remain nimble enough to stay ahead of hackers who can shift quickly from region to region, company to company, and work on much shorter timelines? 

A total systems approach to cybersecurity is needed today in aviation, for the 8 million people who fly every single year. We can help: Visit our website to learn how US Cyber Vault is the trusted cybersecurity advisor to aviation companies. We identify, assess, and mitigate cyber risks for the entire stack of IT infrastructure across aviation companies’ operations, from reservation systems and departure control to e-enablement of aircraft and air traffic management. 


Written by Rob LaMear, CEO, US Cyber Vault

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