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'Plane Hacker' Roberts hacks cows

Teets up security on display

"Plane Hacker" Chris Roberts managed to make it to Israel before delivering a barnstorming presentation at the nation's Cyber Week security conference.

The larger-than-life Highland Games participant told delegates how he discovered it was possible to hack milking machines in the wake of 2014's Scottish referendum result. These milk robots handle functions such as weighing cows, milking and administering drugs.

They also happen to be interconnected embedded devices that can be, or are managed through, the popular remote access tool pcAnywhere. A passive examination showed that no encryption was farmed out to the device and that passwords were, perhaps appropriately given the agricultural context, manure.

Additional research showed that seed-sowing machines might also be hacked. The practical upshot of this is it might be possible to instruct machines too deep into the ground so that vegetables fail to germinate and grow.

It's all enough to put you off your grub or, as Roberts warned, take food off the table.

On a separate front, Roberts discovered that street lights were wireless-enabled. By turning a bank of street lights on and off, Roberts was able to send a hello followed by a rude message in Morse Code up into space.

It's unclear whether or not the messages were received by astronauts.

Roberts promised that he had a "fun and interesting game" set aside that would be "very visible" and ready for the result of Thursday's Brexit (EU membership) vote in the UK.


The FBI has accused Roberts of hacking into the controls of a United Airlines plane in midair via the inflight entertainment system. Roberts tweeted about airplane network security during a UA flight to Syracuse, New York, in April last year. He was questioned on landing and some of his equipment was seized.

Roberts says the FBI has since handed his equipment back and that charges are off the table. Even so, he was delayed in his flight to Israel and he seems to be unpopular with elements – but certainly not all – of the air transport community.

Esti Peshin, director of cyber programs, Israel Aerospace Industries, praised Roberts' research during his presentation to the Cyber Week conference.

"Airports were hacked and airplanes can be hacked," she said. "Air traffic management systems were shown to be hackable, although they've been improved now."

Peshin said that improved collaboration of air transport security was necessary and that this needed to be international in scope. "Lots of people in Israel understand cyber but not avionics," she said. ®

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