CyberNadir: Former Pilot Randomly Speculates (Incorrectly) That Recent Airbus Crash Could Be The Work Of Hackers
from the all-the-'news'-that's-fit-to-cram-into-a-24-hour-sprawl dept
CNN and Fox had the market cornered on ridiculous airplane crash theories, up until recently. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 just up and vanished, CNN produced wall-to-wall coverage seemingly cribbed from low-rent conspiracy theory sites. UFO? Black hole? Any and all theories were entertained.
Fox News hasn't exactly been the epitome of restraint, either. While it managed to avoid following CNN down these plane crash rabbit holes, it too has entertained some theories better left to operations that don't claim "news" to be a major part of their offerings. Fox News host Anna Kooiman suggested the metric system was to blame, what with kilometers being different than miles and Celsius and Fahrenheit not seeing eye-to-eye, potentially leading to some sort of in-flight calculation error.
MSNBC has decided it won't let its competition be the only "news" agencies spouting ridiculous theories. In an effort to get out ahead of the facts -- black box recordings indicated the co-pilot of the aircraft deliberately crashed the plane after locking the commanding pilot out of the cockpit -- MSNBC allowed the following theory to be presented -- completely unchallenged -- by one of its guests.
“There’s one possibility that no one has brought up, and I wonder could this be a hacking incident?” former commercial pilot Jay Rollins told MSNBC’s Diaz-Balart. “This is very similar in my mind to what happened when the U.S. lost that drone over Iran. The same thing, suddenly the aircraft was responding to outside forces…"Now, hacking a plane isn't impossible. At 2013's Hack in the Box conference, German security consultant Hugo Teso used his own app -- PlaneSploit -- to demonstrate that an Android phone could be used to reroute a plane, send it diving towards the ground or to set off every alarm in the aircraft.
Rollins said that the plane’s descent was “worrisome” because “it makes me think about hacking, some sort of interference into the computer system.”
Or not. Teso's demonstration involved sending flight information to airborne planes with these instructions (in a simulated environment, of course) via ACARS (Aircraft Communications and Response Addressing System) to the FMS (Flight Management System). But there were multiple problems with his plan. First of all, the flight computer has to accept the new instructions and, secondly, pilots would have to be unable to override bad instructions. Neither of which are a distinct possibility.
Patrick Smith, another commercial airline pilot, albeit one far less likely to openly speculate on "hacked" planes than Jay Rollins, pointed out the flaws in Teso's hack.
The problem is, the FMS — and certainly not ACARS — does not directly control an airplane the way people think it does, and the way, with respect to this story, media reports are implying. Neither the FMS nor the autopilot flies the plane. The crew flies the plane through these components. We tell it what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Whatever data finds its way into the FMS, and regardless of where it’s coming from, it still needs to make sense to the crew. If it doesn’t, we’re not going to allow the plane, or ourselves, to follow it.So, the problem isn't that hacking is impossible. It's just very, very unlikely. And in this case, hacking had nothing to do with the plane crash.
The sorts of disruptions that might arise aren’t anything a crew couldn’t notice and easily override. The FMS cannot say to the plane, “descend toward the ground now!” or “Slow to stall speed now!” or “Turn left and fly into that building!” It doesn’t work that way. What you might see would be something like an en route waypoint that would, if followed, carry you astray of course, or an altitude that’s out of whack with what ATC or the charts tells you it ought to be. That sort of thing. Anything weird or unsafe — an incorrect course or altitude — would be corrected very quickly by the pilots.
No, the problem is that news agencies looking to wring every bit of ratings possible from a tragedy are willing to make viewers stupider under the guise of "news." When facts just aren't available, 24-hour news teams lean heavily on whatever theory will provide the most entertainment (for lack of a better word). Former pilot Jay Rollins may have three decades of experience, but his speculation draws on none of it. Instead, it just takes a bit of what's selling right now (anything "cyber") and what has always sold (fear) and leaves the viewers with less information than they would have obtained by skipping the coverage completely. The truth, however, is simultaneously more horrific (in that there's little that can be done to thwart a pilot determined to crash a plane) than the "hacked plane" theory and more mundane -- at least in terms of "exciting" news coverage.