How Serious is the Cybersecurity Threat to Aviation?

The aviation industry has long been on the cutting edge of human innovation and technology. Modern avionics has transitioned away from legacy systems and now relies on some of the most advanced networking and information technologies in the world. While the implementation of these technologies has made a positive impact on the field, it has also made the aviation industry a target for cybercriminals, making cybersecurity in aviation a top priority for the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Bad actors across the globe are working tirelessly to hack into the interconnected systems of aviation infrastructure, including:

  • Aircraft manufacturer databases
  • Airport networks
  • Satellites
  • Airlines

Many people who are involved in the aviation industry minimize or disregard this airport cybersecurity threat, which could easily prove to be a grave error. In order to be adequately prepared for the next aviation cybersecurity attack, airlines, manufacturers, and private entities must first understand just how real this threat is.

97 Out of the Top 100 Airports Have Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities

To date, cyberattacks on the aviation industry have been at a relatively small scale. However, there have been several significant attacks in recent years. This is because most major airlines are extremely vulnerable to cybersecurity threats.

Here are a few statistics that highlight just how severe this issue really is:

  • 97 out of the top 100 airports have cybersecurity vulnerabilities
  • 24% of airport websites have known weaknesses
  • One out of four sites fail to use any form of SSL encryption

Many airport websites are devoid of even the most basic forms of cybersecurity protection.

The Largest Breach In History

In the spring of 2018, Cathay Pacific Airways’ IT department detected suspicious activities on their network. What they discovered ended up being the largest and most significant airline data breach in history. The incident affected approximately 9.4 million passengers of the airline.

During the follow-up investigation, it was discovered that the airliner’s security protocols were lacking, to say the least. They were using unpatched “internet-facing” servers, outdated operating systems, and lackluster antivirus protection software.

Bolstering Aviation Cybersecurity

As you can see, cybersecurity concerns present a real and present danger to the aviation industry. In order to guard against these threats, private entities and commercial airlines must work together to improve airport security.

The U.S. TSA recently outlined a four-step cybersecurity roadmap that it is leveraging to achieve its cybersecurity goals. These four priorities include:

  • Identifying current cybersecurity risks
  • Reducing vulnerabilities to critical infrastructure and systems
  • Mitigating consequences of potential incidents
  • Strengthening overall security and enhancing the system’s resilience

While these four points of emphasis were designed specifically for the TSA, they are also relevant guidelines for enhancing aviation cybersecurity in general.

Dangers of Lackluster Airline Cybersecurity

In October of 2020, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report recommending that the FAA “fully implement key practices to strengthen its oversight of avionics risks.”

The GAO found several potential vulnerabilities that could occur due to:

  • Insufficient patches applied to commercial software
  • Insecure supply chain networks
  • Malicious software
  • Outdated legacy systems
  • Flight data spoofing

While cybersecurity controls have been implemented into airplane avionics systems, these technologies are becoming increasingly interconnected. When combined with the evolution of cybersecurity threats, this interconnectivity can enhance the risk posed to flight safety in the future.

Challenges to Aviation Cybersecurity

In addition to understanding the dangers of aviation cybersecurity threats, it is also important to identify potential barriers to addressing these issues.

There are several significant challenges to improving aviation cybersecurity, which include:

Lack of Cybersecurity Culture

The aviation industry has an extremely strong safety culture. The focus on the safety of physical processes, such as flight itself, has always been a staple of aviation.

However, the cybersecurity culture is still lacking in maturity. Stakeholders must bring cybersecurity concerns to the forefront of the conversation if they want to effect real change.

Subpar Awareness

Frontline employees, such as pilots, support staff, and air traffic controllers must be made more aware of aviation security threats. This can be achieved through formal cybersecurity awareness and operational training. The training materials should focus on helping them to identify and manage cybersecurity incidents.

Minimal Security by Design

Perhaps the biggest barrier to enhancing aviation cybersecurity is a lack of “security by design.” This was evidenced in a recent global summit on aviation held in Singapore.

Participants in the conference addressed the ways in which cybersecurity in this industry is often incorporated as an afterthought, arising only after a breach, instead of being built into system from the start.

Overcoming this barrier will be extremely challenging because of the complex nature of adopting new regulations. Governing bodies across the aviation industry, including ICAO, IATA, and ACI, must develop a more efficient approval process so that airlines can implement sound cybersecurity policies.

Like This Post? Subscribe to the Homeland Security Technology Newsletter

If you enjoyed this content, sign up for AGX Marketing’s recurring Homeland Security technology newsletter. Our experts provide insights into the latest challenges facing the aviation industry. We also discuss exciting new technologies that are being introduced. There is no better way to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in the space!



Interested in current events and technology in the security space? Subscribe to the Homeland Security Technology Newsletter.

Are You ready to Grow?

AGX helps organiozations of all sizes create high-impact strategic business development strategies and marketing communications.