Who Are the Key Players and What is the Problem?Who are the key players involved in the aviation industry? According to Wikipedia:
“Aviation is the practical aspect or art of aeronautics, being the design, development, production, operation and use of aircraft, especially heavier-than-air aircraft.”Based on Wikipedia’s description, we can safely assume that the key players include those who design, develop, produce, operate and use aircraft. The aviation industry should reflect on the information that has surfaced lately, both as a result of information obtained from authorities related to Roberts’ incident, as well as from other sources, such as the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, which claims that the FAA must address cybersecurity as it transitions to the Next Generation Air Transportation System. Like many other industries, the aviation industry is moving towards Internet Protocol (IP) based systems. The move towards IP-based systems will require the FAA, along with the entire aviation industry, to, adopt a “More Comprehensive Approach to Address Cybersecurity," as stated in the GAO report. The aviation industry will face significant challenges as more and more of the components constituting its overall ecosystem become IP-enabled and, subsequently, Internet-connected. Yes, I know—not all of these components will be connected to the Internet. Regardless, one fact remains: the aviation industry must reconsider how they approach designing, developing, producing, operating and using aircraft as they continue to introduce more aircraft subsystems that use IP-based networks. Particularly, the aviation industry must consider a security-first design principle, instead of following the classical paradigm of adding security later, after systems have been widely deployed. In a recent newsletter, Bruce Schneier makes some similar points:
"…Governments only have a fleeting advantage over everyone else, though. Today's top-secret National Security Agency programs become tomorrow's Ph.D. theses and the next day's hacker's tools. So while remotely hacking the 787 Dreamliner's avionics might be well beyond the capabilities of anyone except Boeing engineers today, that's not going to be true forever. "What this all means is that we have to start thinking about the security of the Internet of Things--whether the issue in question is today's airplanes or tomorrow's smart clothing. We can't repeat the mistakes of the early days of the PC and then the Internet, where we initially ignored security and then spent years playing catch-up. We have to build security into everything that is going to be connected to the Internet…"Schneier makes two important points here. First, aircraft might be hard to hack today but not necessarily tomorrow. Second, security cannot be an afterthought; it must be a part of an Internet-connected system’s design from start to finish.
Where Did They Fail?Unfortunately, the aviation industry has moved forward and started introducing Internet-based technologies without considering security first. They introduced these technologies into aircraft subsystems and, in doing so, they have failed miserably at one of the most fundamental elements of basic cybersecurity—they have failed at physical security. Physical security forms a basic foundation for all of cybersecurity. Without physical security, we cannot provide any guarantees upon which to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and availability of information and other cyber-resources. As security researchers commonly say: “If an attacker gains physical access to the box, then you are already owned.” Generally speaking, physical security is concerned with matters such as preventing unauthorized access to resources and protection of said resources from damage or harm. For example, physical security for IT systems includes items such as locking down servers within server rooms and both controlling and monitoring access to said server rooms. Another common and very important component of physical security is to ensure that wired network connections, such as Ethernet ports, within a facility are only accessible to authorized personnel. This is one area where the aviation industry has severely failed at physical security. In particular, they have introduced significant cybersecurity weaknesses into aircraft by placing physical network ports within general cabin areas. I am not talking about adding WiFi service for airline customers, I’m talking about connections that could lead to unauthorized access to aircraft information and associated control systems. If you read the news that started surfacing after Roberts’ infamous tweet, you might have heard something about “network connections under aircraft cabin seats." I have actually seen one of these network connections under my cabin seat in the past. I can tell you that it’s pretty dirty under those seats; the airlines must not get under there to clean very often. I guess they don’t expect most passengers to look under the seats, so no need to clean under there. I suppose the designers who added these network ports had similar thoughts when they made their design decisions. Maybe they thought “surely no one is going to look under his seat and, if he does, surely he won’t try to connect his laptop to this network.” As it turns out, that was a poor design decision. There is absolutely no reason for physical network ports, such as these, to be located in an aircraft’s general seating area. This statement is true even if the designer “thinks” the underlying subsystem and associated networks are protected by devices, such as firewalls. I can safely make this statement because of one particular fundamental principle of security known as the principle of least privilege. The principle of least privilege states that every element within any particular computing abstraction should only have access to the information and resources that are necessary and sufficient for its designated purpose. Rest assured, no one within the general cabin seating area has a designated purpose to connect to any aircraft resources that may or may not be accessible by these “hidden” network ports.
Poor Physical Security Followed By Poor Incident ResponseAlas, we have another area where the aviation industry has failed—incident response. According to Wired, the FBI issued an alert in response to the reports stemming from investigations that essentially revolved around Roberts’ airplane security research. The alert advised flight crews to:
“…report any suspicious activity involving travelers connecting unknown cables or wires to the IFE system or unusual parts of the airplane seat”I’m glad that someone advised the aviation industry to be on the lookout for this type of on-board activity. However, these alerts are not long term solutions; it is not a complete incident response. Instead, these alerts are supposed to be used as a temporary mitigation technique until a real solution can be deployed. What is a solution for this specific problem? In my opinion, these physical network ports should be completely removed from any aircraft’s general seating area. In other words, the aviation industry should “respond” to this physical security “incident” by removing these unnecessary and dangerous network ports. The situation is too critical to be avoided, and the potential consequences of not acting swiftly to fully mitigate this physical security failure could be dire.