MENASASI Middle East and North Africa Society of Air Safety Investigators


From Library: Air Safety Cybersecurity: Why Cybersecurity Is a Threat for Air Safety


By Nur Amalina Jumary, 2019 Kapustin Scholarship Recipient, University of New South Wales, Australia


Aviation a “System of Systems”

Aviation today uses complex, integrated systems of information and communication technology to facilitate its daily global operations.

ISASI Kapustin Scholarship Essay

The following essay is the second of four from the 2019 Kapustin scholarship winners that were presented during ISASI 2019. The number of scholars selected each year depends upon the amount of money ISASI members donate annually to the scholarship fund.

Details about scholarship applications and additional information can be found on the ISASI website at Application and essay deadlines are mid-April of each year.—Editor

At the 13th Air Navigation Conference of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 2018, aviation was conceptualized as a “system of systems.” This concept is defined as a collection of different sets of systems consisting of people, products, and processes required for the completion of tasks, none of which are dispensable. Such a system has been enabled by digital technology. Digitalization automates processes by connecting digital technology, information, and people.

The digitalization of aviation has allowed for an increased level of operational efficiency and the means to keep up with increasing commercial demands of international air travel. Despite optimizing operations, digitalization has introduced new vulnerabilities to the industry, namely in the domain of information security or cybersecurity. The interconnectedness of the systems means an increased level of interaction with different information systems, beyond what the industry has traditionally defined as its security parameter (Boeing, 2012), which leaves it at risk for new security threats that may potentially become a concern for air safety.

Information Security in Aviation

Innovations in the design and manufacturing process have brought about “E-enabled” aircraft that are built with onboard information and communications technology that communicate with external networks to exchange data during flight, while on the ground, or anywhere in the world (ALPA, 2017). E-enabled systems present on widely used commercial aircraft like the Airbus 380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner communicate with numerous networks around the globe, all with varying degrees of security.

At present, there are no common cyber standards for aviation systems (AIAA, 2013), which means the risks present in data communication, such as the transfer of flight and system data using wireless technology or maintenance and diagnostic functions that are performed remotely, are yet to be effectively managed.

The threat to air safety as a result of vulnerable information security is far from novel. In 2006, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was forced to shut down a portion of its air traffic control (ATC) systems after a cyberattack caused disruption in its mission support functions. An audit of the FAA’s air traffic control cybersecurity protection measures found that the use of commercial software and Internet protocol technologies in a bid to modernize operations put the system at a high security risk as operations were not properly secured to prevent unauthorized access.

An inspector general report presented to the FAA by the U.S Department of Transportation warned that it is a matter of time before attacks to ATC systems would do serious harm to ATC operations (Baldor, 2009). The reliance of aircraft in communicating with ATC is a vital aspect of air safety, thus any threats that could potentially compromise the system’s integrity should be properly identified and managed. Although there is yet to be a serious cybersecurity incident or accident relating to ATC more than a decade since the incident discussed earlier, in 2015 a security expert in the United States was detained after allegedly hacking into the in-flight entertainment system on a United Airline’s Boeing 737-800 and on one occasion had successfully overwritten a code to issue a “climb” command. In 2017, another cybersecurity expert working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security successfully hacked into a parked Boeing 757 through radio frequency communications (Flight Safety Australia, 2017).

The recurrence of a cyberattack indicates that there has not been enough progress made by the aviation community or support from governments to expand the notion of safety as the industry has known it to encompass systems onboard and on the ground with strong information security. The FAA has taken initiatives to improve information security by tasking its Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee to provide cybersecurity recommendations, which included testing and updating cybersecurity protections (FAA, 2016). On the legislative level, the Cyber AIR Act was reintroduced in Congress in 2017 but has yet to be enacted (GovTrack, 2017). The aviation industry is cognizant of the threats and the consequences of a lax information security system, but reforms and changes are made at a rate much too slow for the industry to have any regulatory or legislative framework to effectively manage the safety risks that have been identified.

Challenges for Investigators

Adopting a generative attitude to air investigation Air safety investigators are responsible for providing recommendations to improve air safety after ascertaining causes of aviation accidents or incidents with the aim to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Inherent to this investigation philosophy is the use of a proactive systems safety approach to air safety (Dempsey, 1999), even though practically investigators are carrying out investigations postevent.

With the security threats and hazards that surround cybersecurity and safe air transport, this approach is not enough, as investigators have to launch into a retrospective investigation driven by data collected through research. To date, there has not been a major occurrence that has significantly compromised air safety as a result of a cybersecurity attack. However, this lack of precedence is compensated by a vast collection of occurrences captured through the mandatory occurrence (incidence) reporting systems established by ICAO Annex 13. The challenge for investigators is to adopt a generative attitude (Hudson, 2001) where they would access and review large volumes of data and proactively review occurrence data to identify and quantify the threats due to lapse in information security. This allows investigators to put forth recommendations to improve air safety cybersecurity.

Training challenges due to the need for an enhanced skill set Another challenge that air safety investigators face is the need to undergo further training in order to acquire the relevant skills to identify cybersecurity breaches. Air safety investigators have a high level of technical skill and knowledge in the aviation domain (Braithwaite & Nixon, 2018), but an investigation is a complex task that draws upon a broad range of skills. The product security director of Airbus Americas revealed that Airbus had not equipped their aircraft with any cybersecurity information as pilots surveyed by the manufacturer preferred not to be informed of such threats during flight (ALPA, 2017), possibly due to the perceived increase in workload. In the event of a total hull loss, the flight data recordings may not reveal accurately the state of events that led to the accident if there was an external presence that was able to overwrite the pilots’ inputs. While there is value in having investigators know what they are looking for in regards to causes of incidents or accidents, there is equal value in having investigators be aware of what they do not know given a novel situation.

An important facet of training that has to be acknowledged is the limitation of training itself. It is highly misleading to expect investigators to have expertise in all aspects of aviation ranging from human factors to aircraft systems and cybersecurity. Subject-matter experts are used in the industry exactly because it is unreasonable to expect investigators to have both depth and breadth of knowledge in all areas of aviation, especially in its fast-changing nature. Airbus also faces a challenge of finding talent that has dual-expertise in aircraft design and cybersecurity (ALPA, 2017), and investigation bureaus face a similar challenge with their investigators. In the area of cybersecurity, the call to equip investigators with an enhanced skill set is part of a “total system” approach. This will ensure that aviation evolves in tandem with the systems that comprise it in order to establish a cybersecurity culture in which cyberthreats are recognized and communicated, and importantly in which the risks are managed effectively.

Integrating Information/Cybersecurity Management and Safety Management Systems

A strategic way in moving forward is to adopt a proven methodology, one the aviation industry has used in the past. Aviation has benefited from implementing a robust, systematic approach to managing safety.

The way the industry involves organizational structures, policies, and procedures and accountabilities to control safety risks in operations has been studied and replicated in other industries like health care (Kapur, Parand, Soukup, Reader & Sevdalis, 2016), and even cybersecurity at its nascent stage (Seawright, 2018).

Having an “information/ cybersecurity management system” integrated to the current safety management system (SMS) would allow the industry to continue managing threats that have been previously identified as well as new ones that arise through innovation in aviation.

The advent of this digital era of aviation brings with it new hazards and threats, all of which do not appear to be fully realized. Thus, having an information/cybersecurity management system that responds to the new vulnerabilities the industry faces integrated with the existing SMS would be an effective approach in managing safety risks. In summary, there is a general consensus in the industry that a harmonized approach is the most effective way to manage the threats relating to information security in aviation (Boeing, 2012).

Individual organizations like the European Union Aviation Safety Agency have made amendments to make it mandatory for manufacturers that are seeking certifications to provide evidence that threats leading to unauthorized access of electronic information or systems are addressed (2019). Similarly, Boeing is establishing a Cyber Technical Center to support the cybersecurity needs of its customers (2012). Efforts made by individual agencies are important, but synchronizing these individual efforts to establish a strong cybersecurity culture would effectively manage information security concerns, thereby maintaining air safety.

Central to this system safety approach is providing the necessary education for investigators to gain the knowledge to identify and recognize threats that are contemporary to the industry, and subsequently the proper trainings for them to acquire skills to provide recommendations to improve air safety.


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WRITTEN BY: BY Nur Amalina Jumary, 2019 Kapustin Scholarship Recipient, University of New South Wales, Australia.