DOT Report: ATC Highly Vulnerable To Cyber Attack

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In 2008, hackers temporarily gained the power to shut down FAA servers, according to an audit performed by the Department of Transportation. The report states that the United States air traffic control system is highly vulnerable to cyber attack in large part due to Web applications (those accessed via Internet browser) run by aviation authorities nationwide. More than 70 Internet applications used for anything from distributing communications frequencies to those that serve internal air traffic control systems create at least 763 high-risk vulnerabilities, the May 4 report said. Any one of those vulnerabilities could allow an Internet hacker the ability to alter systems, gain access to data, or, worse, take control of a computer. In the last fiscal year, some 800 "cyber incident alerts" were reported to the Air Traffic Organization and by year-end, 17 percent had not yet been remediated, "including critical incidents in which hackers may have taken over control of ATO computers." According to the report, "it is likely to be a matter of when, not if, ATC systems encounter attacks that do serious harm to ATC operations."

The report found that multiple serious cyber attacks have occurred on FAA networks in recent years, including 2009. One such attack took place in February, when hackers compromised an FAA system and used it "to gain unauthorized access to personally identifiable information on 48,000 current and former FAA employees." The FAA plans to address the report's conclusions by creating safeguards or "patches" for Web applications -- some of which already have publicly available patches that the FAA has simply not yet applied -- and by adding more systems to detect outside intrusion, an area in which the report found the FAA currently fell short. It was noted in the report that the FAA was responsive to the report's recommendations through actions both taken and planned.