In Brief

Hi-tech planes may be at risk of cyber hijacking, warn officials

US report exposes potential for hackers to take over a commercial plane while it is in flight

Modern commercial planes with highly automated systems could be vulnerable to hackers armed with just a laptop on the ground, US officials have warned.

Investigators from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said it was theoretically possible for a hacker – on the aircraft or the ground – to commandeer an aircraft, put a virus into its flight control computers and jeopardise the safety of the flight.

As the air traffic control system is upgraded with internet-based technology, there is a possibility that "unauthorised individuals might access and compromise aircraft avionics systems", they said in a report.

CNN suggests "hundreds" of planes flying commercially could be at risk. The report, based on interviews with cyber-security and aviation experts, found that older planes that are not highly internet-based were less vulnerable.

In the wake of last month's Germanwings crash, Matt Andersson, president of Chicago-based Indigo Aerospace, wrote a letter to the Financial Times suggesting it was possible that the aircraft's control and navigation systems could have been subject to external hacking through malware or electromagnetic interception.

"This is one reason military and head-of-state aircraft are generally installed with specific shielding and additional active protective measures. Civilian aircraft are not," he said.

A cyber hijack was also among the conspiracy theories attempting to explain what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines plane MH370.

Commercial pilot John Barton told CNN: "We've had hackers get into the Pentagon, so getting into an airplane computer system I would think is probably quite easy at this point."

US congressman Peter DeFazio said the GAO report had exposed cyber-attacks on an aircraft in flight as a "real and serious threat".

He added that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must focus on preventing a terrorist with a laptop in the cabin or on the ground from taking control of a plane through the passenger wifi system. "That's a serious vulnerability," he said.

The FAA said it was taking the risk "very seriously" and is already working on a programme to improve cyber-security defences. Boeing and Airbus also released statements confirming their commitment to designing secure planes.

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