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that united story

Gaaah ever since this story came out about a hacker who claimed to have made an airplane fly sideways because it's JUST SO WEIRD. As an avionics engineer... it was so weird I couldn't comment. And then I was nervous to comment because we're all afraid to talk about hackers, and security, and the feds, it's just a mess everywhere.

So I was happy to read on runway girl that Boeing has stepped up to defend its security, maintaining that no, you cannot make an airplane fly sideways from a passenger display port. You cannot get to the airplane's engines or flight control from there. These systems are very separated and I'm happy to see Boeing is using the same good industry standards that I do where I work... of course they are, they helped develop them, just like the rest of us.

The idea of spooling up an engine from a passenger display is kind of like someone claiming they could disable your air conditioner by reprogramming your coffee maker. They're not talking. That's not a thing.

And even if someone disabled something or cut power to a box, here's the thing about airplanes... we think first about things not working all the time. What would happen if a wire broke? Wires were swapped? A box lost power? A box was wrong? And then we test for everything, I have spent hours and hours hanging out inside airplanes on the ground doing interferrence checks to make sure your cell phone or wifi adapater can't go rouge and interferre with anything, ever.

So if some hacker killed power to a cockpit display, there's a standby display getting power off a totally different bus. There's physical separation, bus separation... he'd have to all over the plane, into panels, with lots of tools, to do anything. Not just sitting in his seat. And that's just power - the databuses are just as redundant and separated.

There's not a single ethernet cable running to an engine sending it emails to go faster. there are multiple separate data buses, cross-checked for comparison, from different sources, that all have to agree on what the commands are. and if anything gets weird, airplanes are made so that pilots get to override anything automatic that's happening. in a people vs. computers battle, people get to win on airplanes.

It's not the internet, it's a machine. And anyone doing any of this would have to know a LOT. That scene in "Flightplan" with Jodie Foster rewiring an airplane with just her skillz... no.

And if anything is real... this guys last tweet was joking that he could trigger EICAS system messages, which would be kinda like your kid in the back seat of your car making your "check engine" light go on. You'd sigh, land the airplane and call the maintenance team and it'd be a huge inconvenience. But not unsafe.

All the comments on slashdot are accusing this hacker of just trying to make a name for himself so he can earn more money as a security expert, but the media is still making such a huge deal about airplane hacking. It's just not adding up.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 1st, 2015 07:47 pm (UTC)
Thanks for clearing this up for me. I heard a little about this on the news this morning and was thinking WTF. It's nice to have someone I trust tell us that it's all crap.
Jun. 2nd, 2015 12:07 am (UTC)
I was reading that and thought there's no way engineers like you would let such things slip! :)

I don't know..I have read and reread the news in different ways, it just didn't make sense. Good to know some explanation from someone who knows the field!
Jun. 2nd, 2015 12:53 am (UTC)
ok, so aside from the no one could ever hack a plane like that anyway for serious *eyeroll*

how exactly does one make a plane fly "sideways" anyway? that's like... really not possible aerodynamically. are they just saying that because "he made it turn a little bit" isn't very interesting?
Jun. 2nd, 2015 02:36 am (UTC)
His claim was, as best I can tell, that he managed to shut down one engine, which led to a major yaw -- and as anyone who has trained in twins can tell you, losing one engine can reeeeeeally make your day lousy.
With that said, in the analysis I've seen, everyone seems to think he did this to a hardware simulator, not to an actual airplane, and there was very significant doubt that the two have the same hardware architecture and behavior.
Jun. 2nd, 2015 04:57 pm (UTC)
Ah ok, I could see a serious yaw happening. Not what I think of as "plane flying sideways" though.
Jun. 3rd, 2015 01:39 am (UTC)
If I made a radar jammer, journalists would claim I'd made airplanes invisible...
Jun. 2nd, 2015 12:55 am (UTC)
Plus I'm pretty sure that you can't make an airplane go sideways no matter what.
Jun. 2nd, 2015 02:24 am (UTC)
If the news used this explanation you just wrote I think A LOT more people would love the comfort of knowing this. I know I did.
Jun. 2nd, 2015 02:45 am (UTC)
Eh, the news doesn't ever aim to comfort, not in their business interest! But thanks, glad I helped!
Jun. 2nd, 2015 09:02 am (UTC)
Heh I've been hearing about this a lot on twitter. My ex retweets a lot of stuff about it (he's a security researcher whose dissertation was on vehicle computer systems).
Jun. 2nd, 2015 12:58 pm (UTC)
The media tends to make a big deal out of practically everything, whether it's true or not. Right now they're going crazy about the NSA losing their ability to gather metadata (though I'm not sure that means they've actually stopped,) yet rarely mentioning that the data hasn't helped them catch anyone.
Jun. 2nd, 2015 02:22 pm (UTC)
"...in a people vs. computers battle, people get to win on airplanes."

Do you think we'll ever get to a point as a society and with technology that people will be comfortable with airplanes that fly themselves? I know the FAA's ancient tech doesn't even have the capability to manage air traffic via GPS right now so this question is purely hypothetical.
Jun. 4th, 2015 12:04 pm (UTC)
And what do you think about the incident recently where the human overriding the plane led to it crashing in the French Alps?

Edited at 2015-06-04 12:13 pm (UTC)
Jun. 4th, 2015 04:09 pm (UTC)
That is certainly the other side of the coin.

I could write a whole entry on this (and probably will) but part of me just assumes that HAL ruined our trust in machines forever, and we'll always want humans to hold the override keys. Even if we're flawed. We're used to screwing each other over - if machines kill us, we get much angrier.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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