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Hackers say coming air traffic control system lets them hijack planes

FAA says it can spot hacking attempts, but won't allow independent 'stress tests'

By Taylor Armerding, CSO
January 11, 2013 08:12 AM ET

CSO - An ongoing multibillion-dollar overhaul of the nation's air traffic control (ATC) system is designed to make commercial aviation more efficient, more environmentally friendly and safer by 2025.

Sleeping air traffic controllers get federal wakeup

But some white-hat hackers are questioning the safety part. The Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) will rely on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) instead of radar. And so far, several hackers have said they were able to demonstrate the capability to hijack aircraft by spoofing their GPS components.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has declared that it already has multiple measures to detect fake signals. But it has so far not allowed any independent testing of the system.

The hacking exploits are not new. National Public Radio's "All Tech Considered" reported last August that Brad Haines, a Canadian computer consultant known online as "RenderMan," noted that the radio signals aircraft will send out to mark their identity and location under NextGen, called automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), were both unencrypted and unauthenticated.

By spoofing those signals, Haines said he could create fake "ghost planes."

"If I can inject 50 extra flights onto an air traffic controller's screen, they are not going to know what is going on," he told NPR. "If you could introduce enough chaos into the system - for even an hour - that hour will ripple though the entire world's air traffic control."

Haines presented his findings at the Defcon hacking conference in Las Vegas last summer [http://www.csoonline.com/article/713233/the-black-hat-bsideslv-and-defcon-post-mortem].

Then there is the group of researchers from the University of Texas that successfully hijacked a civilian drone at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico during a test organized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last summer.

The system used to hijack the drone cost about $1,000. The NextGen program is expected to cost taxpayers $27 billion, plus another $10 billion spent by the commercial aviation industry.

In a third case, NPR reported that Andrei Costin, a Romanian graduate student in France, was able to build a software-defined radio hooked to a computer that created fake ADS-B signals in a lab. It cost him about $2,000. Costin made a presentation at last summer's Black Hat conference.

Paul Rosenzweig, founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting and a former deputy assistant secretary for policy at DHS, wrote in a post last week on Lawfare that this amounts to the FAA continuing to dig itself into a deeper hole. One problem, he wrote, is that the eventual goal is to eliminate radar, which is inefficient because it requires planes to fly on designated radar routes.

"But the hardware for radar broadcasting and reception can't (that I know of) be spoofed," he wrote. "Today, when planes fly using GPS they 'double check' their location with radar. [But] the entire plan behind NextGen is to eventually get rid of the radar system -- an expensive 20th century relic, I guess. But then we are completely dependent on GPS for control."

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