IBM, FAA partner on aviation cybersecurity

Big Blue is working with the federal agency to design a security system to protect private and commercial plane networks from cyberattacks.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

In response to past cyberattacks against the Federal Aviation Administration, IBM is teaming up with the agency to try to create a security system to protect commercial and private aviation networks from future threats.

IBM announced on Tuesday that the new security system will move beyond the typical methods of encryption, firewalls, and antivirus software to guard against hackers, botnets, and malware. Instead, the new system for civil aviation will need to be more intelligent and analytical.

Through a series of sensors and monitors, the system will keep tabs on all network traffic and user activity in real time, said IBM. By monitoring the network, the system can also analyze any attacks or compromises to the FAA network and compare those with past instances.

The FAA will be able to track and analyze all data coming through its networks and get a head's up about any potential attacks in time to take action. All that network information will also be stored in a data warehouse so it can be analyzed in greater detail, IBM explained.

"Cyberattacks have become a global pandemic and no system is immune," said Todd Ramsey, IBM's general manager for U.S. Federal, in a statement. "Through this collaboration with the FAA, as well as others underway in government and the private sector, we hope to develop comprehensive solutions for protecting the digital and physical infrastructures of critical national networks and enterprise systems."

The new system is a key initiative in response to the Obama administration's focus on cyberattacks as one of the most serious threats facing the United States. And that's a threat the FAA knows all too well.

Over the past few years, several cyberattacks have been launched at the agency in charge of safeguarding commercial air travel for U.S. citizens.

In one incident in 2008, hackers accessed an FAA computer and stole personal information, including Social Security numbers, from 48,000 current and former FAA employees. In another attack the same year, hackers took control of critical FAA servers in Alaska.

In yet another attack, hackers obtained an administrative password in Oklahoma, allowing them to install malware on an FAA domain controller. From there, they managed to steal more than 40,000 user names, passwords, and other information for key FAA employees.

Some officials also worry of a potential cyberattack hitting the air traffic control (ATC) systems used to direct flights. In 2006, a virus did hit the ATC systems in Alaska, forcing the FAA to shut down part of them. An Inspector General report sent to the FAA last year warned that unless action is taken, it's simply a matter of when, not if, a cyberattack does serious harm to an ATC system.