FBI claims security researcher took control of plane

Technically Incorrect: Chris Roberts, recently banned by United from all its flights after a tweet, allegedly commandeered a plane's controls. He denies it.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Can a security researcher commandeer a plane? Did he? Whitewings681/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

When Chris Roberts was pulled off a United Airlines flight last month -- and banned by the airline -- was it just because of a tweet that he deemed humorous?

The security expert seemed to suggest in the tweet that he could make the oxygen masks deploy, just by hacking into a box under his seat.

Now, a search warrant application connected with that event has emerged -- first noticed by Canada's APTN -- that puts even darker nuances to the tale.

In it, FBI agent Mark Hurley describes an interview with Roberts on April 15 at Syracuse airport, after he'd been detained.

Hurley claims that Roberts "exploited/gained access to, or 'hacked' the [in-flight entertainment] system. He stated that he then overwrote code on the airplane's Thrust Management Computer while aboard a flight. He stated that he successfully commanded the system he had accessed to issue the climb command. He stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights. He also stated that he used Vortex software after compromising/exploiting or "hacking" the airplane's networks. He used the software to monitor traffic from the cockpit system."

The mere thought that someone could be on a plane and use their technical skills to control it might cause some to resist flying. Or, at least, to check their flight for anyone who looks like they might know how to hack into a computer system.

Roberts, though, denies the specific allegation that he hacked that United flight.

However, he admitted to Wired that he has infiltrated in-flight networks around 15 times, solely for the purpose of observation. The affidavit said that the last time he had accessed an aircraft's in-flight entertainment system had been some time "in the middle of 2014." Each incident allegedly involved seats with a video monitor in the back of seats.

As to the FBI's suggestion that he made a plane fly sideways, Roberts 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."

The affidavit claims that, in his discussions with the FBI, Roberts "advised that he had identified vulnerabilities with IFE [in-flight entertainment] on Boeing 737-800, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A320 aircraft."

I contacted Boeing and Airbus at the time of the incident. A Boeing representative told me: "Boeing has put in place, and demonstrated to the airlines and regulatory agencies, the appropriate cybersecurity safeguards, both hardware and software. IFE systems on commercial airplanes are isolated from flight and navigation systems. While these systems receive position data and have communication links, the design isolates them from the other systems on airplanes performing critical and essential functions" Airbus did not comment.

It seems we've drifted sideways into some very serious legal areas. I have therefore contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented Roberts at the time of his detention and the confiscation of a number of his gadgets, and the FBI. I will update, should I hear.

Roberts hasn't been charged with a crime. However, he did admit to Wired that investors in One World Labs, a company that he co-founded, had withdrawn their money after his contretemps with the FBI. This, he said, led to some layoffs.

At the core of all this is where genuine concern for the security of in-flight systems ends and a genuine threat to passenger safety begins.