Avation Flying with ancient technology: The Boeing 747 receives important updates via floppy disk 08/12/2020

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Never change a running system – the aircraft manufacturer Boeing has obviously taken this saying to heart. When a security company was allowed to inspect one of the jets, they made a surprising discovery.

Safety first, this sentence probably applies in few places as much as it does to flying. But while in the rest of the IT world it is good form to have your own systems checked for loopholes by experts in order to increase security, it is impossible for the aircraft fans among the security researchers to touch the technology get without breaking the law. A lecture at the Devcon hacking fair brought a rare insight – and a big surprise.

The possibility of examining the safety systems of a Boeing 747-400 arose for the experts at Pen Test Partners through a decision by British Airways to do without the jumbos in the future. The British security company did not miss this opportunity. And had researcher Alex Lomas guide visitors to this year’s virtual conference through the technical depths of the aircraft in a video presentation.

Floppy in the cockpit

Probably the most surprising finding: The navigation systems are still used with floppy disks in 3.5-inch format for updates, Lomas showed after he opened an inconspicuous flap in the cockpit. “The database needs to be updated every 28 days,” explains the expert. “You can imagine how annoying it must be for the engineers every month.”

The ancient technology should not be stuck in the plane for nothing. The Boeing 747-400, announced in 1985 and then delivered for the first time in 1989, has its own computer system that is operated via a server room two floors below the cockpit. The technology has not only been tried and tested for decades, but also protected against attacks thanks to its antiquated structure. “There is no network in the true sense of the word,” says Lomas, explaining the vast number of cable connections between the computer room, the cockpit and all of the technology. “So you can’t hook up to any cable at the end of the plane and do all of this here.”

No hack from the passenger cabin – right?

In modern systems it is completely different, explains Lomas in a later question and answer session. But he says no to the question that is burning under the nails: There is no known way to gain control of the flight systems from the on-board entertainment system, he reassures him. “So far we have not found a way to let the two systems communicate with each other. There is a kind of protection zone (” DMZ “) that separates the two from each other. I think it is extremely difficult to overcome these two protective layers.”

There have been attempts in the past. In 2015, security researcher Chris Roberts made headlines when he revealed on Twitter that he had gained access to an aircraft’s system while in the air in the passenger cabin. The FBI then arrested him. As a result, there was a debate as to whether Roberts could actually have tampered with a turbine in flight as he claims.

The moral of the hacks

After the episode, there was also loud criticism of Robert’s attempt. Hacking into the system of an airplane that is in the air is irresponsible even if you mean it well, said Alex Stamos, who was then Yahoo and later Facebook security chief. “You cannot make the (true) assumption that security research is beneficial to people while supporting experiments that endanger the lives of hundreds of innocent people,” he wrote on Twitter.

Lomas also understands that the classic security tests by hackers are not permitted on airplanes. “Airplanes are pretty expensive beasts,” explains during his stay in the 747. “As much as you might like, the airlines and manufacturers don’t just let you poke around because they don’t know in what condition you will leave it behind.”

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