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A cyber hijack theory for the flight 370 mystery risks a portable devices ban on aircraft

airport securityBy Simon Davies

The latest theory to emerge in the ongoing mystery of missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 is that an onboard mobile phone was used to disable the plane’s communications system and take over the controls. If this idea takes hold it may very quickly trigger a global ban on the carrying of portable electronic devices in aircraft cabins.

Such a policy wold dramatically change the dynamics of air travel. Laptops, phones and iPads would need to be stored in the hold, bringing an end to the convenience of traveling with only carry-on baggage and also introducing significant risk to the devices. In such a situation there would be ongoing tension with air travellers who – quite rightly – would want to keep these items within arm’s reach.

Airline security policy is episodal – quick to establish global policy on the basis of a single incident, and slow to dismantle that policy in the light of reflection

Airlines have been slowly abandoning the long-standing ban on the use of devices in planes, with restrictions under review both in Europe and the US. Indeed had passengers been allowed to use mobile phones, the fate of flight 370 might have been determined long ago. Traffic data would have accurately tracked the plane’s location.

The mobile hijacking theory has been provided with added weight in recent days since the determination by officials that flight 370 was intentionally taken off course. In the absence of concrete evidence of the cause, security interests will – as always – rally around any theory that will attract new sources of funding.

Dr Sally Leivesley, a former UK Home Office scientific adviser, has been talking up her idea that “hackers” could change the plane’s speed, altitude and direction by sending radio signals to its flight management system. The plane could then be landed or made to crash by remote control. She believes a framework of malicious codes, triggered by a mobile phone would have been able to override the aircraft’s security software.

“It is looking more and more likely that the control of some systems was taken over in a deceptive manner, either manually, so someone sitting in a seat overriding the autopilot, or via a remote device turning off or overwhelming the systems.”

The mobile terrorism theory started gaining traction long before the Malaysia Airlines mystery. Last April, German security consultant Hugo Teso, who is also a commercial pilot, told the Hack In The Box security summit in Amsterdam that he had spent three years dev­eloping a series of malicious codes on a mobile phone app called PlaneSploit that hacked into an aircraft’s security system.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of a ban on carrying electronic devices.

Recent history shows that airline security policy is episodal – quick to establish global policy on the basis of a single incident, and slow to dismantle that policy in the light of reflection. One attempted shoe-bomb incident established in a matter of weeks a near-worldwide policy of shoe removal.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of a ban on carrying electronic devices. To begin, the technologies would be regarded as inherently dangerous items liable for confiscation. This would put a mobile phone or laptop in the same category as, say, a pair of scissors or a bottle of mouthwash. The practical implications for air travel – particularly short-haul travel where passengers often carry all their possessions on board – would trigger a spectrum of consequences both for the security of those devices and to the pressure on airport baggage handling facilities.

As with previous security scares, passengers often take the brunt of policy decisions before the airline industry fully engages the causes. In this case the core question arising from a mobile or cyber hijack is how the perpetrator could gain access to flight systems.

At this stage there’s no indication that authorities are centring on the mobile hijacking theory, but there is a risk that the longer the mystery drags on, the more the theory will gain currency. Air travel customers should track such developments with a sense of real concern.