Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370: First Ever Cyber-Hijack?

Mar 24, 2014 By Sharon Solomon

The Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 probably crashed into the Indian Ocean, but what really went on inside the plane is yet to be revealed by investigators. Is it possible that the MH370 was actually cyber-hijacked by a seasoned hacker? Interestingly, relevant proof-of-concepts have already been demonstrated by InfoSec experts.



Hugo Teso, a German InfoSec expert, made his presentation at last year’s Hack in the Box (HITB) conference in Amsterdam. Teso simply pulled out his cell phone and shocked the visitors with his unique plane-hacking application, named PlaneSploit. Teso’s maliciously programmed app easily contaminated the demo aircraft’s system and gave him full access. Is it possible that this well-orchestrated “controlled experiment” could  have evolved into a real-life scenario aboard Flight MH370?


The main aspects of the flight technology the various proof-of-concepts deal with are:


  • ADS-B – Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast.
    This is basically the air traffic control system replacing the old radar instruments. Consists of ADS-B In, reception of aircraft data and ADS-B Out, which broadcasts aircraft information via an on-board transmitter.
  • ACARS – Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System.
    This system sends a digital message to the ground at every crucial stage of the flight (out of the gate, off the ground, on the ground and onto the gate). Data related to weather, winds and connecting flights is also reported.
  • DSP – Datalink Service Provider.
    The DSP delivers messages from the aircraft to the ground-end system and vice versa via a network of landlines and ground stations. The two primary service providers of ground networks today are ARINC and SITA.
  • SDR – Software Defined Radio
    SDR is the radio system that performs the signal processing. SDR Software performs the demodulation and signal enhancement, while the SDR Hardware is professional-grade transceiver solutions.


The aforementioned demonstration by Teso exposed a serious vulnerability in the ACARS and also uncovered loopholes in flight management software made by leading companies such as Honeywell, Thales and Rockwell Collins. For the finale, he also showed how he can take control of the plane and navigate it like a toy using his phone.


Andrei Costin’s “Ghost in the Air (Traffic)“, presented at the Black Hat USA 2012, dealt with the loopholes in the ADS-B system. The attacks were implemented using Universal Software Radio Peripheral (USRP). In a separate Def Con 20 demo, hackers exploited the lack of encryption in the ADS-B protocol and made ghost planes appear on the radar.


More and more security experts are mentioning the possibility that the MH370’s on-board entertainment system was used to gain access to the main computer and alter the jet’s course. Aviation officials were quick to fire down these theories, but the InfoSec demos mentioned in this article prove that the explanations are not that unrealistic.


Only time will tell what happened to the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines MH370 passenger jet after take-off. But the security issues in airplanes, control centers and communication equipment cannot be ignored anymore. The radio transmissions need to be encrypted and the various involved databases must be coded safely to minimize vulnerabilities.


Information Security is a necessity in the aviation industry and must be taken seriously to prevent dangerous security breaches. To read more about Source Code Analysis (SCA) – Click Here


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Sharon Solomon

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