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Shoot the Messenger

“Modern aircraft are increasingly connected to the Internet,” notes a U.S. Government Accountability Office report. “This interconnectedness can potentially provide unauthorized remote access to aircraft avionics systems.” Shortly after the report was released, Chris Roberts needed to fly. Roberts founded the computer security company One World Labs in Denver, Colo., which specializes in finding security problems before they’re exploited by bad guys. In recent news interviews, Roberts explained, “We can theorize on how to turn the engines off at 35,000 feet and not have any of those damn flashing lights go off in the cockpit.” While sitting on a United Airlines flight, Roberts posted a musing on Twitter that it might be possible to hack an aircraft’s control systems to, say, deploy passenger oxygen masks. When his plane landed, he was interrogated by the FBI for four hours, and his computer and storage devices were seized. Days later, when it came time to go to a computer security conference, where he was scheduled to speak about the vulnerabilities of transportation systems, Roberts was denied boarding by United “because he had made public statements about having manipulated airfare equipment and aircraft systems,” said United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson, even though Johnson also said the airline is “confident our flight control systems could not be accessed through techniques he described.” An attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has stepped in to defend Roberts, notes that it would be better if “United learns that computer security researchers are a vital ally, not a threat.” (RC/USA Today, AP) ...And in the current world environment, the sooner the better.
Original Publication Date: 19 April 2015
This story is in True’s book collections, in Volume 21.

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