Security Expert Hauled Off Flight After Aeroplane Tech Warning

A security expert who provided warnings to a number of journalists about the vulnerabilities associated with in-flight technology, has been removed, detained and interrogated after taking a civilian flight.

And to make matters worse, the expert detained by the FBI has actually previously consulted for the FBI regarding in-flight technology risks.

Expert Detained

The security expert in question is Chris Roberts, of Colorado-based One World Labs, a security intelligence and risk detection firm. Roberts is regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on counter-threat intelligence within the cybersecurity industry.

He was also apparently involved in a number of Fox News reports that revealed vulnerabilities in aeroplane technology systems.

It seems that Roberts was on a United Airlines commercial flight on Wednesday night when it landed in Syracuse (New York state). According to Fox News, Roberts had been invited by a defence contractor to speak an aerospace conference about vulnerabilities in airplane systems, and he was on his way to the conference.

But when his plane landed at Syracuse, two FBI agents and two uniformed police officers pulled him off the aeroplane. They then reportedly spent the next four hours grilling him about cyberhacking of planes.

Roberts was previously quoted as telling Fox News, “We can still take planes out of the sky thanks to the flaws in the in-flight entertainment systems. Quite simply put, we can theorize on how to turn the engines off at 35,000 feet and not have any of those damn flashing lights go off in the cockpit.”

“If you don’t have people like me researching and blowing the whistle on system vulnerabilities, we will find out the hard way what those vulnerabilities are when an attack happens,” Roberts was quoted as saying.

Zealous Officials

What makes this detention even more laughable is that Roberts is regularly used by private companies, to help them identify threats to financial and intellectual property, customer data and other protected information.

The FBI (and other government agencies) has also consulted with him three times, in order to get his guidance on protecting airplanes from cyberhackers.

But this did not stop FBI agents detaining Roberts on Wednesday. They also reportedly confiscated his electronic devices and demanded he give them access to his data. It is reported that the FBI wanted to forensically image his laptop, but it is a company-owned asset with client information, research and intellectual property, some of which is sensitive in nature and encrypted.

Therefore, after consulting with his CEO, Roberts told the agents they would need a search warrant, which has still not been forthcoming.

The FBI agents even questioned fellow passengers and forensically examined the aeroplane to determine if any areas had been tampered with.

“You have one element in the FBI reaching out to people like me for help, but another element doing a hell of a job burning those bridges,” a justifiably upset Roberts was quoted as saying. “Those of us who do threat research are doing it for the right reasons, and we work to build relationships with the intelligence community because we want to help them identify weaknesses before they become a problem.”

The FBI reportedly responded to the news of the detention of Roberts with a boiler plate statement. “We have no comment on this matter,” a spokesperson said.

Earlier this week, the US Government Accountability Office warned that in-flight Wi-Fi could be used by terrorists or other hackers to take control of an aircraft’s avionic systems.

It is concerned because avionic systems that have traditionally been self-contained are now sharing the same network as passenger Wi-Fi, raising the possibility of remote unauthorised access.

So finally, what about Roberts getting home again?

Well he is apparently scheduled to return to his home town of Denver on Friday. But there is no word if he has been able to board his return flight, or whether he has to resort to a very lengthy drive home instead!

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Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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