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Does anyone know of any documented examples of airline accidents caused by hacked or otherwise deliberately compromised avionics?

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  • $\begingroup$ It may be more instructive to also ask "What preventative measures are in place to mitigate hacked or compromised avionics" since many of the answers include "There are no obvious incidents, and I wouldn't expect any because XYZ." $\endgroup$ – Cody P Jul 8 '16 at 16:36
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Searching the NTSB Accident Database which also covers some international commercial flights for the key words "hack", "hacked" do not provide any results related to hacked avionics. Likewise using the keyword "tampered" does not provide any results related to deliberate tampering with avionics (mostly "tampered" wreckage).

There is one individual, Chris Roberts, who claims to have hacked into the In-Flight Entertainment System (IFE) to cause the aircraft to deviate from its course, however I find it highly suspicious. From a security perspective, I can't of any good reason to have the IFE network on the same network as any avionics, however that isn't to say that there isn't some possible connection. The FBI certainly didn't think it was very funny.

So as of today there have not been any aviation accidents that are attributed to hacked or deliberately tampered-with avionics as a cause of said accident. The closest thing I think you will find is pilots loading incorrect flight plans, outdated (or even pre-dated) navigation data, and other cases of pilots not correctly using the equipment.


I did read your original question and would like to clarify. Conspiracy theories, guesses, and internet speculation are not a replacement for hard evidence. In the case of MH-17 the wreckage was recovered and no evidence has been presented in the favor of hacking, while there is a lot of evidence of the shoot-down. Airliners even at cruising altitude can be shot down by surface to air missiles rather easily.

As for MH-370, until the wreckage is found we may never know (and even if it is we may never know). Black boxes do not have an indefinite life span especially if they are under water. Until then theories of that flight being hacked are just as credible as those saying aliens abducted the entire flight and they are living on Neptune in specially constructed Igloos.

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    $\begingroup$ "I can't think of any good reason to have the IFE network on the same network as any avionics." Unfortunately, there are bad reasons to have the IFE network on the same network as avionics (not that I know that's been done, I'm just saying. For example, I can't think of any good reason why a car's entertainment system is on the same network as the engine controller/braking system, but we know that's done.) $\endgroup$ – davidbak Jul 5 '16 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ The IFE needs to at least read the flight data, since it is displaying them. So it is up to the bridge to isolate it the other way and there can be a bug in it. @davidbak, in car, the “entertainment” system is also configuration system for many things, which is why it needs connection to the main bus and it must be two-way in that case. In the IFE case the data flow can at least be restricted to one-way. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 5 '16 at 17:09
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    $\begingroup$ The problem is not to have things connected or not (they are), but how security is enforced using credentials. In the new era of virtualization virtual LANs are physically connected, but logically segmented. Did you know that your Intel CPU can access a network and exchange data when the laptop is powered off? $\endgroup$ – mins Jul 5 '16 at 18:19
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec I don't feel the same way about the FBI reaction. If he can't reproduce, its a threat (try running through the airport yelling "bomb" once, even if you don't have one). If he can, then he's compromising the safety of others (what if he locked the pilots out somehow and they crashed?). Just because you can do something but never intended to do damage doesn't mean it isn't illegal. If he wanted to demonstrate this, he should have brought it to the FBI's attention before attempting to do it on an active flight, or 15 as he said. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jul 5 '16 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ As @JanHudec mentioned, when using industrial serial buses (CAN, SDI, ...) manufacturers are not really worried about connecting everything to the same wire, and often modern security concepts have yet to spread within the engineering dept. I do believe avionics manufacturers are more concerned, but not sure how much more. The FA call button is connected to the FA system, connected to the audio panel, connected to the VOR, connected to the GPS, connected to the ACARS, etc. $\endgroup$ – mins Jul 5 '16 at 18:43
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No. Near as I know, current navigation and flight control avionics are separate from internet connected components, so 'hacking' them is physically impossible.

Now, more types of cockpit avionics are becoming Bluetooth compatible, allowing for interconnectivity with internet connected mobile devices or apps eg Garmin Pilot, ForeFlight, etc., allowing a person to download a flight plan into a GNSS head for example. Maybe some hacker at some point will analyze a security flaw within these avionics and be able to exploit this.

In addition, these systems often take software updates in the form of SD cards, USB thumb drives, etc. so there is a possibility of introducing malware into the system that way as well.

But even if a GPS head were attacked that way, there would be no means for it to gain access to the control systems of the a/c, the system could be manually shut down, and backup means of navigation used.

But in the era of Stuxnet and budding developments of cyber weaponry paralleling the development of the Internet of things, anything may be possible in the future; just not now.

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    $\begingroup$ "Near as I know, current navigation and flight control avionics are separate from internet connected components, so 'hacking' them is physically impossible." Hacking doesn't require the internet, just physical access. Also, Stuxnet is specific to Siemens PLC control systems (I'm a controls engineer) which really doesn't have a parallel in avionics... $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Jul 5 '16 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ "Near as I know, current navigation and flight control avionics are separate from internet connected components" - This does not appear to be accurate. See, e.g., wired.com/2015/04/hackers-commandeer-new-planes-passenger-wi-fi, which states that in some modern jets, the flight control avionics are on the same network as passenger entertainment systems. There are supposedly firewalls, and if those firewalls are free of bugs this might be adequate to prevent the risks... but that's different from saying they are separate networks, or that hacking is "physically impossible". $\endgroup$ – D.W. Jul 5 '16 at 19:34
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    $\begingroup$ See also schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/01/hacking_the_boe.html and dailytech.com/…. My guess/speculation is that many of the press articles are probably massively over-hyping the risk... but at the same time, the risk can't be completely discounted, and that statements that hacking is "physically impossible" are irresponsible and can't be justified based on the publicly available evidence. $\endgroup$ – D.W. Jul 5 '16 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ That Wired article and the Schneider blog are tantamount to carnival barking. Having worked on these kinds of aircraft, cockpit systems, flight controls, and IFEs, I can tell you there is no hard connection between critical avionics such as the flight control computers, air data computers, radios, nav heads, AFCS, auto throttles, etc., and satellite based WiFi networks. No, as of today it is virtually impossible for a person working remotely to commandeer an aircraft by hacking into a IFE network. $\endgroup$ – Carlo Felicione Jul 6 '16 at 0:47

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