Aviation officials have taken a skeptical view of claims that it's possible to hijack a commercial aircraft using a smartphone, with both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Administration (EASA) issuing statements to the effect that it simply couldn't happen.
On Wednesday, Spanish security researcher Hugo Teso gave a presentation at the Hack in the Box conference in Amsterdam in which he claimed he had developed an Android app that could allow him take control of an airplane by feeding misinformation into its in-flight communications systems.
Hardly, said the FAA in a statement to news agencies on Thursday.
"The FAA is aware that a German information technology consultant has alleged he has detected a security issue with the Honeywell NZ-2000 Flight Management System (FMS) using only a desktop computer," the agency wrote, making something of a muddle of the facts.
The statement went on to explain that although Teso may have been able to exploit aviation software running on a simulator, as he described in his presentation, the same approach wouldn't work on software running on certified flight hardware.
"The described technique cannot engage or control the aircraft's autopilot system using the FMS or prevent a pilot from overriding the autopilot," the FAA's statement explained. "Therefore, a hacker cannot obtain 'full control of an aircraft' as the technology consultant has claimed."
Iowa-based Rockwell Collins is one of the companies that makes the kind of aviation systems that Teso alleged to have pwned in his research, and in a statement obtained by Forbes, it concurred with the FAA's conclusions.
"Today's certified avionics systems are designed and built with high levels of redundancy and security," a company spokesman said. "The research by Hugo Teso involves testing with virtual aircraft in a lab environment, which is not analogous to certified aircraft and systems operating in regulated airspace."
The EASA chimed in with a statement of its own, saying, "For more than 30 years now, the development of certifiable embedded software has been following strict guidance and best practices that include in particular robustness that is not present on ground-based simulation software."
Doubtless there will still be some Reg readers thinking, "Ah, but they would say that, wouldn't they?" So take it from writer and airline pilot Patrick Smith, author of the Ask the Pilot blog, who explains that even if it were possible to override an aircraft's systems remotely, it probably wouldn't matter:
The problem is, the FMS ... does not directly control an airplane the way people think it does, and the way, with respect to this story, media reports are implying. Neither the FMS nor the autopilot flies the plane. The crew flies the plane through these components. We tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Whatever data finds its way into the FMS, and regardless of where it's coming from, it still needs to make sense to the crew. If it doesn't, we're not going to allow the plane, or ourselves, to follow it.
Incidentally, Smith has spent much of his writing career debunking scare stories about aircraft and aviation, which he says crop up far too often.
"Commercial aviation is a breeding ground of bad information," Smith writes in his blog's About page, "and the extent to which different myths, fallacies, wives' tales and conspiracy theories have become embedded in the prevailing wisdom is startling." ®