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All this confusion over flight 370 has me wondering if it would be possible to hack into an airplane and control the autopilot or other on-board systems in a way that the pilots couldn't regain control.

I know some basic searching reveals some articles such as this one. If the plane can't be hacked, could someone with the proper knowledge snip or disable the pilot's override?

Disclaimer: I know 0 about aviation, but I am a programmer. So my guess would be that anything that doesn't have a physical disconnect would be vulnerable to being hacked without being able to override it.

Additional Disclaimer: This is a question about curiousity / possibility, not a how-to.

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most systems on an aircraft do have a physical disconnect, and the fly by wire lets the pilot full control if he needs it –  ratchet freak Mar 14 at 23:46
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@ratchet physical disconnect? How can I envision that -- like Scotty crawling through smoking engine shafts?-- My favourite joke is from the German c't magazine... an airplane passenger opens his notebook and freaks when he sees this dialog pop up: "New Bluetooth device detected: Airbus A380. Reset [yes] [no]?" –  Peter Schneider Mar 15 at 3:25
    
@PeterSchneider I meant there is a fusebox right behind the pilot where he can turn off the power to just about all systems –  ratchet freak Mar 15 at 3:30
    
@ratchet ok, but he wouldn't like that during takeoff or landing. Or flying, as such. –  Peter Schneider Mar 15 at 3:34
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How about stowing a trained monkey in the wheel well. It may not count as hacking, but you might be able to accomplish the same objective. A trained monkey could be really bad news, especially if it was charming, had a snazzy outfit and had evil intentions. –  David Mar 15 at 8:07

4 Answers 4

up vote 18 down vote accepted

As of currently, the answer to this question is in principle no for commercial aircraft, at least not remotely. There are two parts to this:

From a system perspective:

  • Aircraft systems could probably be 'hacked'- assuming you could for instance screw up the flight computer by changing the chips in the belly- but there is no way you could really pull this off without the pilots noticing the course being way off from the compass for instance, so they'd figure out and shut if off. Many systems are not connected in a way that allows them to be cause damage to others. Systems are also pretty dedicated- if its supposed to fly the plane, that's what it does, if it supposed to navigate, that's what is does.

  • Systems on aircraft generally a have limited, if any, connection to the outside world. There are a few systems that have the ability to connect to the ground, and this is generally limited to simple text messages. Much of the electronics on the 777 are from the type's introduction in 1994. A decent analogy I think is trying to hack an early cell phone remotely.

And from a practical standpoint:

  • Aircraft are generally very stiff when it comes to changes- they are often approved in a certain configuration, and that then sticks, so there's little need to change stuff, and hence it's not possible. This applies to the autopilot and flight controls- once it's there, it stays there.

  • Update: As a few people have pointed out, these systems are proprietary and closed source, making it difficult to program them if you're an outsider, but in theory it might be possible.

The fact that no aircraft, even the computer-intensive Airbus, have really been hacked to any extent, the notion that the entire aircraft would be taken over and flown somewhere is impossible.

As for original question link:

“The FAA has determined that the hacking technique described during a recent computer security conference does not pose a flight safety concern because it does not work on certified flight hardware,” he said.

“The described technique cannot engage or control the aircraft’s autopilot system using the FMS or prevent a pilot from overriding the autopilot,” said Dorr.

“Therefore, a hacker cannot obtain ‘full control of an aircraft,’ as the technology consultant has claimed,” said Dorr.

On a similar accord, I think I heard a story about a Bombardier Dash 8 that got a computer virus once, but I think it never got beyond the navigation system, the most processing intensive part. Unfortunately, I can't find a source for this.

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Also, from a software development perspective, hacking a set of avionics would involve massive amounts of work and specialized knowledge. Home computers and business computers (servers, etc) are run on common operating systems, like Linux, Windows, Unix, OSX, etc. Avionics, not so much, they're proprietary and getting ahold of the schematics would be difficult if not illegal. You'd have to to have incredibly specialized system knowledge to hack that system in the first place and that's even before you run into all the problems that you've mentioned. Point being, hacking is highly unlikely. –  Jay Carr Mar 15 at 3:11
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Since I worked in the automotive industry: Any modern vehicle is fully wired, if only for diagnostics. If you get at the diagnostics port you can most likely hack the vehicle. @JayCarr: Yes, you would need immense specialized knowledge. It was frequently difficult to e.g. flash car devices although we were legit and had the encryption keys, hardware and documentation. But then it's sometimes difficult to log into a windows computer -- doesn't mean it can't be hacked. If you drill at the right location you may get to the wire, in case the port is outside or in the pilot's footspace ;-). –  Peter Schneider Mar 15 at 3:32
    
@PeterSchneider More what I meant is that you're more likely to see a Windows hacker because there are, literally, billions of users and billions of boxes to practice on. Avionics software...not so much. But yes, still hackable if you had a mind to do it ;). –  Jay Carr Mar 15 at 3:34
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+1. Also, people seem to frequently have a "movie" view of hacking, where any piece of copper or antenna can be tapped into and magically used to control the device. This isn't really true; imagine, for example, trying to hack a computer through a microphone jack or a VGA port, or trying to flash a car ECU through the radio's FM antenna, or trying to steal pictures off a cell phone through the GPS transceiver (well, presuming reasonable vendor extensions on that last one). –  Jason C Mar 15 at 8:58
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I agree with @JayCarr the systems are highly proprietary so it would take a really good inside knowledge and then like this answer says it is probably near impossible to do it remotely. And if you're going to physically take apart systems why screw with the navigation why not just put a bomb or something? I mean I get that piracy is one of the theories but there was a Lear Jet that crashed 3 miles from an airport in New Hampshire (USA) back in 1996 it took 3 YEARS to find it. Oceans are much bigger. –  p1l0t Mar 15 at 14:47

There are certain communication systems that theoretically could be hacked into. CPDLC is used to communicate digitally between pilots and controllers, so if it were to be hacked someone could send instructions to the pilot that would look like they were coming from a controller, and the pilots would not know the difference.

Flight plans can also be uploaded to the Flight Management System in some cases and could be used to program a different route.

One thing to keep in mind though is that the pilots are still intimately involved. They see and approve all changes. Minor changes might go unnoticed, but if they were instructed to fly in a completely different direction or to a different destination, they would probably start asking questions. If they were sent directly towards a mountain or another airplane, they would likely notice or other safety systems would step in to warn them.

Even in a "worst case" scenario where someone were able to reprogram the autopilot (I don't believe that this is even possible right now) then the pilot can always just turn it off and fly manually.

In short, this isn't really something to worry about.

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Everything is possible. For example, NSA could have forced a manufacturer to include some backdoor in the system for their use.

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Haha, I like the way they come up everywhere ;) –  Sunny R Gupta Mar 16 at 8:21

Any computer can be hacked. I'm not saying I have the knowledge to do it, or even know much about airplanes to tell you how. However if someone with the knowledge required had the proper time, motivation, and access to an aircraft, it could most definitely be done. If you're asking if a plane can be taken over from the ground midflight, without any prior modification, I can't answer that because I don't know enough about the system.

Theoretically discussing how to hack a plane midflight, with or without prior modifications, would probably get me flagged and placed on a list somewhere, so I decline to go into detail on that.

However, one must think about what wireless protocols are used for a plane to talk to the ground, what computer subsystems can access that physical link, and if those subsystems can control the plane, or access other subsystems that can control the plane.

'Locking a pilot out' probably involves disabling a manual switch somewhere, tricky to do via computer, but can be done given enough amperage was passed through the switch to blow it, or if it were rigged before hand (prior modification).

If we're talking how to, this is a episode of Numb3rs with a similar theme, however it wouldn't be far off from what would need to take place in real life.

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Taking it over from the ground without prior access to the craft would be, for all practical purposes, impossible. Even if you did get access to the craft and compromised the autopilot, the pilot could just turn it off. Even if you managed to blow the switch, he could pull the fuse or switch off the breaker. And, barring that, he could just shut down the power bus it was using. The odds of someone successfully taking control of a 777 autopilot without having previously been an engineer involved in designing that system are extremely low. –  reirab Mar 25 at 16:14
    
Passing amperage through a switch to blow it would only work in an incredibly bad novel/film. It's not realistic in an avionics perspective. -source: Avionics technician for ten years... –  davewasthere Jul 6 at 14:42
    
@davewasthere why? I'm not doubting you, just curious, because from an Engineering perspective, the switch has a current limit, which hopefully is at least twice its nominal rating. Can you discuss what safeguards are in place to prevent damage? –  BigHomie Jul 6 at 15:01

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