Throughout November and December last year, Ruben Santamarta sat in front of his computer peeking inside the technical bowels of hundreds of aircraft flying thousands of meters above him. That included commercial aircraft operated by some of the biggest airlines in the world. He believes it may’ve been the first time anyone had hacked planes from the ground by taking advantage of weaknesses in satellite equipment.
The cybersecrity researcher could, if he’d been so inclined to break the law, have hacked those onboard systems, snooped on the onboard Wi-Fi and carried out surveillance on all connected passenger devices. Fortunately, the safety systems on the planes were not at risk, thanks to the ways in which modern aircraft segment networks.
Santamarta, a researcher at cybersecurity company IOActive, was able to spy on all those planes due to vulnerabilities in satellite communications equipment, such as antennas sending data up to aircraft and the modems within. All could be exploited remotely, without needing physical access to the hardware. In his words, Santamarta found various ways to turn satellite communications kit into “radio frequency weapons.”