A prominent hacker and security researcher allegedly told the FBI he accessed an aeroplane’s in-flight entertainment system to make it fly sideways, according to a search warrant application filed by the FBI.
One World Labs founder Chris Roberts was detained by the FBI in April after tweeting that he might hack into the domestic United Airlines flight he was flying on. According to the FBI affidavit — first put online by APTN News and highlighted in an article in WIRED — Roberts had spoken with the FBI earlier this year about repeatedly hacking into planes’ in-flight entertainment systems, and in one instance, using his access to issue a climb command and make the plane turn sideways.
After interrogating him, the FBI confiscated two of Roberts’ laptop computers, as well as several hard drives and USB sticks, WIRED reports.
Below is the tweet the caused Roberts to be detained in April:
Find myself on a 737/800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM, ? Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? “PASS OXYGEN ON” Anyone ? :)
— Chris Roberts (@Sidragon1) April 15, 2015
And here’s what the FBI reportedly confiscated:
The search warrant application also details how Roberts said he hacked into the plane’s in-flight entertainment system — IFE — to change its flight.
“He compromised the IFE systems approximately 15 to 20 times during the time period 2011 through 2014,” according to the warrant application. “Each of the compromises occurred on aeroplanes equipped with IFE systems with video monitors installed in the passenger seats.”
Roberts said he was able to get physical access to the IFE systems by removing the cover of the Seat Electronic Box installed underneath passengers seats, according to the FBI filing. Then, the FBI said, he would use a modified Ethernet cable to connect his laptop to the IFE system, which allowed him to access other aeroplane systems.
“He stated that he then overwrote code on the aeroplane’s Thrust Management Computer while aboard a flight … [and] successfully commanded the system he had access to the issue the ‘CLB’ or climb command,” the warrant application states.
With the command, according to the FBI document, Roberts “caused one of the aeroplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane.”
WIRED notes that Roberts’ actions, if true, have disturbed many people involved in security research, as evidenced by the below tweet from Alex Stamos, Yahoo’s Chief Information Security Officer:
You cannot promote the (true) idea that security research benefits humanity while defending research that endangered hundreds of innocents
— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) May 16, 2015
However, speaking to WIRED, Roberts said his discussions with the FBI about hacking a flight are taken out of context.
“That paragraph that’s in there is one paragraph out of a lot of discussions, so there is context that is obviously missing which obviously I can’t say anything about,” he told WIRED. “It would appear from what I’ve seen that the federal guys took one paragraph out of a lot of discussions and a lot of meetings and notes and just chose that one as opposed to plenty of others.”
We sent a message to Roberts through his company and will update this post if we hear back.
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