A well-known U.S. hacker told F.B.I. agents he took momentary control of an airplane’s engines mid-flight by hacking into its inflight entertainment system, according to a document filed in U.S. federal court and obtained by APTN National News.
Roberts, who has been interviewed at least three times by the F.B.I. this year, is under investigation for allegedly hacking into the electronic entertainment systems of airplanes, according to an application for a search warrant to probe seized electronic equipment.
The document shows F.B.I. agents investigating Roberts believe he has the ability to do what he claims: take over flight control systems by hacking the inflight entertainment computer.
Roberts has not yet been charged with any crime. The allegations contained in the search warrant application have not been proven in court.
Roberts is the founder of One World Labs and he is widely viewed as an expert on counter threat cyber security.
F.B.I. agents obtained the search warrant on April 17 to probe a number of electronic items seized from Roberts after he arrived in Syracuse, NY, from Chicago on April 15. Roberts had posted a joke tweet earlier in the day while on a United Airlines flight between Denver and Chicago. The tweet referred to hacking into the airplane’s in-flight entertainment and passenger oxygen mask system.
During two interviews with F.B.I. agents in February and March of this year, Roberts said he hacked the inflight entertainment systems of Boeing and Airbus aircraft, during flights, about 15 to 20 times between 2011 and 2014. In one instance, Roberts told the federal agents he hacked into an airplane’s thrust management computer and momentarily took control of an engine, according to an affidavit attached to the application for a search warrant.
“He stated that he successfully commanded the system he had accessed to issue the ‘CLB’ or climb command. He stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights,” said the affidavit, signed by F.B.I. agent Mike Hurley.
Roberts also told the agents he hacked into airplane networks and was able “to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”
According to the search warrant application, Roberts said he hacked into the systems by accessing the in-flight entertainment system using his laptop and an Ethernet cable.
F.B.I. agents let Roberts go after they seized his equipment and questioned him in Syracuse. The agents then tracked the Denver to Chicago airplane Roberts took before connecting to Syracuse. Roberts sat in seat A3 on the Chicago flight. The airplane was traced to Philadelphia and F.B.I. agents discovered the boxes in seats A2 and A3 showed evidence of tampering, according to the warrant application document.
The document stated the box under A2 was “damaged” with the outer cover “open approximately” half and inch and “one of the retaining screws was not seated and was exposed.”
The F.B.I. said it seized Roberts’ electronic equipment in the interest of public safety because they believe he has the ability to take control of airplane systems.
“We believe Roberts had the ability and the willingness to use the equipment then with him to access or attempt to access the (inflight entertainment system) and possibly the flight control systems on any aircraft equipped with an (inflight entertainment system) and it would endanger the public safety to allow him to leave the Syracuse airport that evening with that equipment,” sates the warrant application.
The items seized from Roberts include a black iPad with a “Death Wish Coffee Co.” sticker, a silver MacBook Pro with “multiple” stickers, three hard drives, six thumb drives and two USB cables.
Shortly after the incident with Roberts, Wired reported that the TSA and the F.B.I. issued a bulletin to airlines to be on the lookout for passengers showing signs they may be trying to hack into an airplane’s Wi-Fi or inflight entertainment system. Wired also reported that the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that electronic systems on some planes may be vulnerable to hacking.
Roberts told the F.B.I. that he has discovered vulnerabilities in the inflight entertainment systems of Boeing 737-800, 737-900 and 757-200 aircraft along with Airbus A-320s.
Air Canada flies Airbus A-320 aircraft and WestJet flies Boeing 737-800 aircraft, according to the airlines’ websites.
According to Wired, Roberts has been issuing warnings about vulnerabilities in inflight entertainment systems for years.