FBI probe claim hacker ‘took control of US plane’

On 15 April, Mr Roberts was taken off a United Airlines flight from Chicago. Picture: Getty Images
On 15 April, Mr Roberts was taken off a United Airlines flight from Chicago. Picture: Getty Images
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A HACKER has claimed to have taken control of a passenger jet he was on board, in the first known such incident of its kind, according to the FBI.

Chris Roberts is said to have plugged into the plane’s computer systems through the electronics box under his seat, and briefly moved the aircraft sideways.

Chris Roberts has given several  TV interviews in America. Picture: Contributed

Chris Roberts has given several TV interviews in America. Picture: Contributed

He said that all he needed was a cable to connect to his laptop and the default passwords to ­access the plane’s systems.

According to FBI documents, he accessed the in-flight networks on American flights more than a dozen times between 2011 and 2014.

Mr Roberts has claimed that he just wants to make air travel safer, but his actions have alarmed the cyber security community.

He is a prominent US hacker who has also been described as one of the world’s leading experts on cyber security.

He has been questioned at least three times by the FBI this year, including on 13 February.

FBI Special Agent Mark Hurley wrote in his application for a search warrant of Mr Roberts’s home that during that session the hacker bragged about his prowess.

Mr Hurley wrote: “He stated that he caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights.

“He also stated that he used software after comprising/exploiting or ‘hacking’ the airplane’s networks.

“He used the software to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”

Mr Roberts is said to have told the FBI that he gained access by using the Seat Electronic Box (SEB) which is installed under passenger seats on some planes.

He removed the cover to the box by “wiggling and squeezing” it off and connecting it to his laptop with an ethernet cable.

He used default passwords to access the in-flight entertainment system, and from there was able to access other systems, Mr Hurley wrote.

Mr Roberts also reportedly claimed to have overwritten the plane’s Thrust Management Computer code, allowing him to issue a climb command and make the plane serve sideways.

He is said to have told the FBI he was providing the information “because he would like the vulnerabilities fixed”.

The FBI asked for the search warrant of Mr Roberts’s home after another incident on 15 April when he was taken off a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Syracuse, New York.

Before boarding he had sent Tweets suggesting that he could turn on the oxygen on the plane, signing one message off with a smile.

The FBI affidavit states that the plane was tracked down and investigations revealed the SEB under Mr Roberts’s seat had been “damaged” with the outer cover open half an inch.

Mr Roberts has not been charged with any offence so far.

He has appeared on US TV in a number of interviews in which he was sporting a long graying beard and was wearing a black hoodie.

Roberts told Wired.com that he did access the in-flight networks on planes around 15 times but merely observed data traffic.

He recently Tweeted: “Over last five years my only interest has been to improve aircraft security…given the current situation I’ve been advised against saying much.”