Report: aviation industry playing catch up on cybersecurity

A new report from the Atlantic Council argues that aircrafts have become highly complex, "flying data centers," but the industry and government are behind on protecting them from cyber threats and sabotage.

system security (Titima Ongkantong/

Like most critical infrastructure, the aviation industry has become increasingly connected in the digital space, reliant on a constellation of computer systems, parts and stakeholders to provide services to millions of people each day.

However, few other sectors have a higher profile or a thinner margin for error and a new report from the Atlantic Council argues that these highly complex, "flying data centers" are increasingly at risk for technical problems or cyberattacks that can lead to accidents and loss of life.

The aviation industry still has to figure out how to incorporate cybersecurity into governance accountability frameworks for flight safety, security and enterprise IT, according to the report. Supply chain risk management also presents multiple challenges.

Separately, a survey of 244 industry members done in tandem with the report found "deep concern" about the effectiveness and clarity of current cybersecurity regulations and standards as well as anxiety that the sector lacked global standards and could be moving towards a fragmented regulatory environment.

"As national, regional, and organizational efforts are under way to improve aviation cybersecurity, there is a growing risk of adding complexity across the landscape of regulations and best practices," the report states.

At a corresponding event hosted by the Atlantic Council, Alan Pellegrini, CEO for cybersecurity firm Thales said "it had become a siloed as opposed to a systematic approach to addressing a very important safety topic."

The authors recommend that the industry rally around a cybersecurity strategy developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization released in October.

That strategy is built around seven "pillars:" harmonizing international cooperation through organizations like ICAO, developing clear governance and accountability models by governments, new legislation and regulations to support national and global aviation cyber strategies, the incorporation of cybersecurity policy in existing aviation security and safety oversight systems, increased information sharing mechanisms to promote awareness around vulnerabilities, developing clear, scalable and tested plans for maintaining continuity of air transport during cyber incidents, and building cybersecurity curricula into workforce and technical trainings.

Adopting the ICAO strategy will provide a common baseline for organizations around the world, but the Atlantic Council report argues that is just the beginning. It also calls for greater transparency about cybersecurity needs in contracts and system design, reaching out to a diverse set of stakeholders such as the cybersecurity research community and moving towards a global "learn once, share widely" model.

It's not just industry that's taking notice. A federal task force composed of representatives from the Departments of Defense, Transportation and Homeland Security released a National Strategy for Aviation Security earlier this year that heavily emphasized the need to protect aircraft computer systems against "disruptive technologies" and cyber attacks.

On the commercial side, one of the largest hacker conferences in the world, Def Con, has begun hosting Aviation Villages where security researchers and aviation industry can meet and collaborate on cybersecurity issues. Government agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS have become increasingly involved in those events while also offering a suite of services and security assessments to different stakeholders in the industry.

Randy Talley, a senior advisor at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said his agency works with airports to test the vulnerability of their security systems and is in discussions with some airlines to do the same.

"Our guys will go out, maybe do a validated architectural design review, maybe do some spearphishing -- all of this at the request of someone -- to come in and try to assess their current state if you will," said Talley.

Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said the Pentagon is looking to work with companies who can serve both the commercial and defense sectors without opening their supply chain to unacceptable risks. Doing that requires the military to be more upfront about its needs. That includes not just cybersecurity for jets and fighters, but also satellites and other technologies the U.S. and other countries are putting into orbit.

"For programs like our space launch program, we're telling rocket providers that want to sell to a lot of commercial companies, that want to put the internet and other industries in space, what it takes to put a military satellite in space…you can imagine that cybersecurity falls in that model."

Like most other parts of the federal government, companies working with the military on these issues will have to deal with badly outdated legacy systems. Roper cited newer software delivery system programs like Kessel Run and Kobayashi Maru but acknowledged that visibility into what makes up the Air Force's software base only goes so far. That needs to change.

"It's something I worry about all the time: we don't know the code that's actually running in our systems. We know the code we asked the vendors to write for us…but what about the embedded code that's in the supply chain?"