Personal data slurped in Airbus hack – but firm's industrial smarts could be what crooks are after

Advanced composites, Eurofighter... lots of goodies ripe for espionage

Comment Airbus has admitted that a "cyber incident" resulted in unidentified people getting their hands on "professional contact and IT identification details" of some Europe-based employees.

The company said in a brief statement published late last night that the breach is "being thoroughly investigated by Airbus' experts". The company has its own infosec business unit, Stormguard.

"Investigations are ongoing to understand if any specific data was targeted," it continued, adding that it is in contact with the "relevant regulatory authorities", which for Airbus is France's CNIL data protection watchdog. We understand no customer data was accessed, while Airbus insists for the moment that there has been no impact on its commercial operations.

Airbus said the target was its Commercial Aircraft business unit, which employs around 10,000 people in the UK alone, split between two sites. The company said that only people in "Europe" were affected.

The Broughton site "focuses primarily on manufacturing but also houses engineering and support functions such as procurement and finance", according to the company website, while Commercial Aircraft's other site at Filton, near Bristol, does "the design, engineering and support for Airbus wings, fuel systems and landing gear".

Airbus is also the design authority for the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet's landing gear, though detailed design work is done by a subcontractor, French aerospace firm Safran's Landing Systems division.

Airbus sent us a prepared statement but did not respond to follow-up inquiries.

It might not be who you think

Such an "unauthorised access to data" incident immediately raises suspicions about industrial espionage.

Airbus has a growing manufacturing presence in China, with a final assembly line for both its A320-series narrowbody airliners and A330 long haul, twin-aisle aircraft. Francois Mery, COO of Airbus's Chinese commercial aircraft division, told state news outlet China Daily last year that Airbus wants to "form a vertical integration supply chain in China". This tends to show that state-backed hackers from China, at least, would have comparatively little to gain; Airbus technology is already making its way to the Middle Kingdom through entirely legitimate channels.

On the other hand, the A330 is also used by western air forces as a troop-carrier-cum-airborne-refuelling aircraft. Filton also assembles wings for the A400M military transport aircraft (Airbus's attempt to compete with Lockheed Martin's famous C-130 Hercules). Those wings make use of advanced composites to save weight, as a 2011 Composites World feature explained in detail – and that kind of technology is still valuable today.

This could also have been an attempt to harvest personal data for later targeting of individuals, perhaps as a means of getting inside the company's networks for further exploitation. Airbus is one of the Eurofighter consortium members and its military division is also responsible for a number of helicopter designs in military service worldwide, including the Puma medium-lift helo flown by the RAF. ®

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