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GAO Report Warns In-Flight Wi-Fi May Leave Aircraft Vulnerable To Hacking


The same Wi-Fi systems that allow us to surf the Internet in the sky could also make our commercial airliners vulnerable to hackers. In other words, it's possible that hackers could use a laptop or another device to bring down a plane. That's according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. NPR's David Schaper has more.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Current air traffic control systems work through point- to-point contact, so, for example, between the air traffic controllers on the ground and the cockpit crew in the air or from one plane to another. Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues for the GAO, says newer air-traffic control systems will be essentially Internet-based and will be better, but...

GERALD DILLINGHAM: At the same time, there will be more avenues in which the potential for a cyber-intrusion can occur.

SCHAPER: Dillingham says one of those avenues could be through the plane's Wi-Fi system which allows passengers to check e-mail or watch video especially on newer aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 or Boeing's Dreamliner. He says those planes have very sophisticated avionics on the same network with the entertainment system.

DILLINGHAM: As an example, someone who has a laptop in the cabin or maybe even on the ground - there was the potential that they could breach the avionics of the aircraft.

SCHAPER: Dillingham stresses that this is not an imminent threat, but a potential one. And he says the FAA is taking many precautions, including putting up several firewalls, but even firewalls can be hacked. FAA administrator Michael Huerta told a Senate commerce committee hearing yesterday that he agrees there is a serious cyber security risk.

MICHAEL HUERTA: This threat will continue to evolve, and it is something that needs to be at the forefront of our thinking as we - not only maintain the existing system but as we bring new technologies into the system.

SCHAPER: Nonetheless, members of Congress are sounding the alarm. Peter DeFazio of Oregon is the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.

CONGRESSMAN PETER DEFAZIO: What we're going to need to do is not just build and make sure we have the best firewalls in the world, but I believe that these systems should be totally segregated.

SCHAPER: The new report follows up another GAO study which found the FAA's new NextGen air traffic control system is also at significant risk of being hacked. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.