Physical control systems should be located in the Aircraft Control domain, which should be physically isolated from the passenger domains; however, this doesn’t always happen. Some aircraft use optical data diodes, while others rely upon electronic gateway modules. This means that as long as there is a physical path that connects both domains, we can’t disregard the potential for attack.
In-flight entertainment systems may be an attack vector. In some scenarios such an attack would be physically impossible due to the isolation of these systems, while in others an attack remains theoretically feasible due to the physical connectivity. IOActive has successfully compromised other electronic gateway modules in non-airborne vehicles. The ability to cross the “red line” between the passenger entertainment and owned devices domain and the aircraft control domain relies heavily on the specific devices, software and configuration deployed on the target aircraft.
In 2014 we presented a series of vulnerabilities in Satellite Communication (SATCOM) devices, including airborne SATCOM terminals. A primary concern is the sharing of these SATCOM devices between different data domains, which could allow an attacker to use this equipment to pivot from a compromised IFE to certain avionics.
On the IT side, compromising the IFE means an attacker can control how passengers are informed aboard the plane. For example, an attacker might spoof flight information values such as altitude or speed, and show a bogus route on the interactive map. An attacker might compromise the CrewApp unit, controlling the PA, lighting, or actuators for upper classes. If all of these attacks are chained, a malicious actor may create a baffling and disconcerting situation for passengers.
The capture of personal information, including credit card details, while not in scope of this research, would also be technically possible if backends that sometimes provide access to specific airlines’ frequent-flyer/VIP membership data were not configured properly.
On the bright side, while not in scope of the Panasonic Avionics IFE systems research, I believe in-flight Wi-Fi itself is not a problem because it can be implemented securely without safety and security risks.
What all of this means is that after initial analysis we do not believe these systems can resist solid attacks from skilled malicious actors. Airlines must be vigilant when it comes to their In-Flight Entertainment Systems, ensuring that these and other systems are properly segregated and each aircraft’s security posture is carefully analyzed case by case. The responsibility for security does not solely rest with an IFE manufacturer, an aircraft manufacturer, or the fleet operator. Each plays an important role in assuring a secure environment.
We reported these findings to Panasonic Avionics in March 2015. We believe that has been enough time to produce and deploy patches, at least for the most prominent vulnerabilities. That said, we believe that in such a heterogenous environment, with dozens of airlines involved and hundreds of versions of the software available, it’s difficult to say whether these issues have been completely resolved.
As always, we would love to hear from other security types who might have a differing opinion. All of our positions are subject to change through exposure to compelling arguments and/or data.