A “security researcher” kicked off a United Airlines flight last month for tweeting about security vulnerabilities on the plane had previously taken control of an airplane and altered it course, according to a search warrant affadavit filed by an FBI agent.
During an interview interview following the United Airlines incident, Chris Roberts told FBI Special Agent Mark Hurley that he had hacked through the in-flight entertainment system on a plane and overwrote code on the plane’s Thrust Management Computer while aboard the flight. He stated he was able to issue a climb command and make the plane change course.
“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,” FBI Special Agent Mark Hurley wrote in his warrant application (.pdf). “He also stated that he used Vortex software after comprising/exploiting or ‘hacking’ the airplane’s networks. He used the software to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”
Hurley filed the search warrant application last month after Roberts was removed from a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Syracuse, New York, when he tweeted he might hack into the plane’s network. When he landed, FBI agents and local police officers escorted him from the plane and interrogated him for several hours.
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
Agents also seized two laptop computers and several hard drives and USB sticks. Although the agents did not have a warrant when they seized the devices, they told Roberts a warrant was pending.
Reaction throughout the cybersecurity community has been harsh. Although Roberts hasn’t been charged yet with any crime, a number of security researchers have expressed shock that he attempted to tamper with a plane during a flight.
“I find it really hard to believe but if that is the case he deserves going to jail,” wrote Jaime Blasco, director of AlienVault Labs in a tweet.
Alex Stamos, chief information security officer of Yahoo, wrote in a tweet, “You cannot promote the (true) idea that security research benefits humanity while defending research that endangered hundreds of innocents.”
Regardless of whether charges are filed, there has already been some fallout from the incident. Roberts told WIRED that investors of his company, One World Labs, pulled their investments in the company. As a result, One World Labs had to lay off half of its staff, about a dozen employees.
Roberts said there were other factors involved but this latest incident “was probably the final straw.”
“The board has deemed it a risk. So that was one factor in many that made their decision,” he said. “Their decision was not to fund the organization any further.”
You can read the warrant application here.