Cyber Crime and Cyber Terrorism – The Threat to Air Transport


State sponsored cyber terrorism; politically motivated cyber terrorism carried out by an individual or groups of individuals; and plain cybercrime carried out by individuals, are the categories one must watch.  There must be a scheme calculated to address the issue on a global scale based upon a sustained study to be conducted by aviation security experts.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( January 28, 2016, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Although I have already published quite a few articles in this journal on cyber terrorism and air transport, it never seems to be enough.  The Economist of 4 November 2014 speaks of “cyberjacking” – a phenomenon that refers to the equivalent of hijacking an aircraft with the use of cyber technology.   This could happen from outside the aircraft or from the inside. The catalyst in this instance is the increasing popularity with passengers of internet connectivity on board for work, games, movies The article also mentions that internet signals are routed through existing communications architecture, such as the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS),, or the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which is an anti-collision system, which, both being information communications systems can, in theory be targets of cyber-attacks. In its later edition of 21 May 2015 the same journal highlighted that a hacker had identified a weakness with the in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems on Boeing 737-800, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A320 aircraft. He had demonstrated this fact by accessing the systems by plugging a laptop into one of the electronic boxes usually found under the seats either side of the aisle. Once connected, the hacker claims to have accessed other systems on the aircraft.

None of these claims have been validated by the scientific community nor have they been put into practice by terrorists or criminals against civil air transport.  Nonetheless, this may be a sign of things to come, particularly when one considers that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s computers have been hacked in the past and that all computer systems of SONY were hacked in the recent past, allegedly by a foreign State sponsored hacking exercise.  As this article discusses, there has been at least one confirmed cyber-attack on a computer system of a commercial airline.

At the outset it becomes necessary to define the terms cybercrime and cyber terrorism.  In a proposal for an international convention on cybercrimes and terrorism, a cybercrime is defined as conduct with respect to cyber systems that is classified as an offence under the draft Convention .   Although cyber terrorism has been simplistically defined as “an assault on electronic communication networks”, the proposed convention defines cyber terrorism as the intentional use or threat of use, without legally recognized authority, of violence, disruption or interference against cyber systems, when it is likely that such use would result in death or injury of a person or persons, substantial damage to physical property, civil disorder, or significant economic harm. The Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States has given a more extensive definition: “the premeditated, politically motivated attack against information, computer systems, computer programs, and data which result in violence against non-combatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents”

The term “cyber terrorism” was coined in 1980 by Barry Collins who defined it as “the intimidation of civilian enterprise through the use of high technology to bring about political, religious, or ideological aims, actions that result in disabling or deleting critical infrastructure data or information”

The threat of cybercrimes on air transport has decidedly increased.  This is because the overall threat on computer security of industry has increased in general terms in recent years. In specific terms, as aviation digitized baggage handling systems, air traffic management information and communication technologies including flight information display systems, the digital sophistication introduced into these systems has spawned opportunity for hackers to exploit the vulnerabilities that came with such advancement. Added to this, computers, which have graduated from desktops and laptops to peoples’ pockets are now found in all sorts of gadgets. This trend has prompted Cisco – a manufacturer of network equipment – to point out its concern, that there are currently as many as 15 billion connected devices in the world which could increase to 50 billion by 2020 .  These have the potential of causing significant damage to life and limb as well as severe financial and economic damage.  For example, in 2006 the US Federal Aviation Administration was forced to shut down air traffic control systems in Alaska as a precautionary measure against an attack on the internet. Two years later, in a scary scenario, accident investigators investigating the crash of Spanair Flight 5022 of 20 August 2008 involving an MD 82 aircraft , concluded  that the aircraft crashed due to the computer system monitoring technical problems on board was infected with malware.

A particular vulnerability is seen in air traffic management systems where security challenges pose a two pronged threat.  For one, if established systems are not fitted with the appropriate   information and communication security measures, they could be vulnerable to attack.  Just as an example, the common use of radio frequency in air traffic management for communication between air traffic control and aircraft, navigation, and surveillance could make it easy for the hacker to execute unauthorised transmissions through very high frequency transceivers.   To circumvent this possibility one could encrypt radio transmission but this would seriously circumscribe the number of channels available for communication between air traffic control and aircraft.   The radio transmission approach has an added vulnerability in that radio transmissions could easily be jammed, as in a reported instance when a portable transceiver was used to jam the Unicom frequency at Central Maine Airport .

The other threat lies in new technology that may be introduced into the air traffic management networks which could create unsecured access points through which critical information and systems can be compromised in new and innovative  ways.  One such innovative air traffic management system, which is expected to become popular over the coming decade is Remote Tower Services (RTS) where air traffic at an airport is performed remotely, away from the local control tower. The European Cockpit Association (ECA) has suggested that cyber-security portends an ominous scenario where the very nature of the concept would lay it open to susceptibility and vulnerability. ECA therefore suggests precautionary measures to be put in place and procedures established so that possible attacks could be circumvented or at least minimized in their consequences.  One of the measures suggested, as part of an efficient security management system in RTS, is a mandatory reporting system by air navigation service providers and aircraft operators that would alert authorities to occurrences related to illegal or questionable cyber conduct. This brings to bear the need for identification of the person who transmits the message as well as the potential recipient of the message.  There is a critical need in this regard to adopt technical and legal measures that could ensure that the identity of the message transmitter can be authenticated, and their messages to selected recipients can be limited.

State sponsored cyber terrorism; politically motivated cyber terrorism carried out by an individual or groups of individuals; and plain cybercrime carried out by individuals, are the categories one must watch.  There must be a scheme calculated to address the issue on a global scale based upon a sustained study to be conducted by aviation security experts.

The author, who is a Fellow of both the Royal Aeronautical Society and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, is a former Senior Legal Officer at ICAO.  He is currently an aviation consultant in Montreal and Senior Associate, Air Law and Policy, Aviation Strategies International

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