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Turbulence Ahead: Safeguarding Aviation from Cyber Attacks

Lorna Jones

Lorna Jones, Senior Cyber Security Consultant
Oct 22, 2023

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Securing Critical Infrastructure: Aviation Industry Cyber Defense

The scene plays out like a plot from a thriller film. Hackers access the controls of a regional airport's heating system from the basement of a nondescript building. With a few keystrokes, they raise the temperatures until safety systems force a complete evacuation of the terminal and tarmac during a peak travel day. Flights are grounded, and passengers are stranded. Mayhem ensues.

This cyberattack on a European airport in 2021 illustrates the havoc hackers can unleash by compromising aviation infrastructure systems and networks. While scenarios may seem far-fetched, the risks are genuine. As air travel rebounds post-pandemic, cybersecurity remains a primary concern for the aviation industry.

Both airlines and airports are vulnerable. Breaches can endanger passenger safety, cripple operations, and damage bottom lines. Preventing catastrophic attacks requires comprehensive cyber strategies to secure critical infrastructure.
Yet often, gaps persist. Legacy systems containing latent vulnerabilities remain connected to airport networks. Security is an afterthought in new technologies like IoT and AI. Vendors introduce risks through supply chain access. Insiders may abuse credentials. Financial impacts from outages dissuade robust investments.

The consequences of inaction are severe. Headlines increasingly highlight cyber risks facing airlines and airports.

In cybersecurity and the digitalisation of the world, if a business is not careful, it can quickly become a statistic in some article or report. Here are some of these reports:

"In 2021, a cyberattack on airline SITA exposed passenger data like credit cards and travel information for major carriers. Breached reservation systems created chaos."
"Malware impacted airport operations like check-in and boarding at multiple airports in 2022 when IT systems were infiltrated. Hundreds of flights faced disruption."
"An unsecured server at a significant Asia-Pacific airline exposed terabytes of sensitive security and network data 2020 until the misconfiguration was found."
"A hacked contractor account at a U.S. international airport enabled hackers to access security cameras and badge entry systems for months in 2019."
Such incidents illustrate aviation infrastructure vulnerabilities being actively exploited by criminals. Meanwhile, nation-state attacks present crippling threats should geopolitical conflicts arise. Brief single airport outages easily cascade into massive global disruption within the tightly connected aviation network.  

The various cyber threat types facing the aviation industry

Beyond dramatic meltdowns, a host of cyber villains constantly probe aviation infrastructure for any crack that enables access. Each may create headaches individually, but collectively, they threaten to undermine the industry's foundations, absent robust security.

Patient, profiteering hackers hunt for any data to sell, like passenger records, frequent flyer accounts, crew data, etc. One misconfigured server or phished password provides the opening they covet.

Insiders abuse system credentials for revenge, theft or simple convenience. A disgruntled employee shuts down a baggage system. An IT admin snoops passenger records. Privileged accounts become weapons.

State-sponsored groups research how to ground airlines to paralyse economies and sow chaos when geopolitical winds blow. The most skilled hackers lurk in anticipation.

Hacktivists like Anonymous relish embarrassment and disruption for political aims. Runways get shut down, public sites defaced, and sensitive data exposed. You know those who say aeroplanes pollute the air, then those statements go down the drain when it is time to take a trip to the Maldives.

Cyber terrorists bide time before striking to inflict maximum panic. Imagine compromised flight controls, barricaded terminals, and grounded aircraft.

Criminal syndicates seek quick riches. Ransomware locks down systems until ransoms are paid. Financial fraud rinses untraceable cash.

While shadowy, these threats are anything but theoretical. Each requires dedicated defences to counteract. United, the aviation community must secure infrastructure against attacks aiming to bring air travel to its knees.

What steps can aviation businesses take to strengthen defences and avert catastrophe?

Critical Cyber Priorities 

Here are some expanded details on key steps aviation businesses should take to bolster cyber defences and infrastructure security:
Implement zero trust architectures - Verify every user and device attempting to access aviation networks and segment access. Reduce threat actor lateral movement.
Harden endpoints - Set security standards for servers, workstations, and mobile devices accessing aviation environments. Enforce patching, configuration baselines, and threat protection.
Prioritise ICS/SCADA security - Identify industrial control systems for baggage, lighting, and fuel distribution operations. Evaluate risks and deploy specialised ICS cyber protections.
Secure the technology supply chain - Set security requirements for vendors, contractors, and suppliers with access to aviation networks and data—audit compliance.
Deploy continuous monitoring - Implement network traffic analysis, endpoint detection and response, user behaviour analytics, and SIEM solutions to get visibility across aviation infrastructure.
Conduct regular red teaming - Have internal or external ethical hackers simulate attacks against the infrastructure to test defences proactively before real threats strike.
Provide focused training - Educate infrastructure teams on risks, threats, security tools, and best practices in the aviation environment. Update regularly.
Develop playbooks - Outline response procedures for likely attack scenarios like ICS malware, DDoS, data destruction, and hijacked field devices. Conduct exercises to validate plans.
Maintain asset inventories - To manage vulnerabilities, catalogue infrastructure components like servers, routers, switches, workstations, mobile devices, network gear, and embedded systems.
Seek cyber insurance - Explore policies covering infrastructure-focused threats, including ICS attacks, data and equipment damage, and business interruption.
With advanced preparation against various threats, aviation businesses can avoid worst-case disruptions and build resilience.

Major Breaches Linked to Infrastructure Exposure

Not using a secure, well-maintained network and infrastructure would prove fatal for your business. 

"Due to application vulnerabilities, the British Airways - 2018 attack hit public-facing web servers, exposing personal and payment data for hundreds of thousands of customers. Massive regulatory fines resulted."

"Cathay Pacific - 2018 breach leaked sensitive personal data from millions of fliers through compromised servers, including passport numbers, email addresses, and credit card details. "

"Air Canada - Mobile app flaws in 2021 could have enabled hackers to access customer data and flight information stored insecurely. White hat hackers uncovered the misconfigurations."

Infrastructure Security Best Practices

It is far better and less costly to seek out the best ways and practices to safeguard aviation infrastructure, for it is one of the most critical industries. Without it, we are knocked back a couple of hundred years. Here are some expanded details on best practices for securing aviation infrastructure against cyber threats:

Implement zero trust access models to isolate and defend critical networks -

Verify all users and devices attempting to access aviation infrastructure networks. Microsegment networks and enforce the least privilege.

Hire dedicated ICS/SCADA security experts -

Seek specialised talent focused on industrial control systems vs just traditional IT. They will understand unique ICS protocols, risks, and hardening.

Maintain complete component inventories -

Catalog all infrastructure components like servers, workstations, networking gear, field devices, sensors, and embedded systems. Continuously update and tie to vulnerability management.

Conduct regular pen testing and vuln assessments -

Schedule recurring authorised penetration tests on infrastructure environments to find flaws proactively. Perform frequent vulnerability scanning.

Secure the technology supply chain -

Set security requirements for tech vendors with access to infrastructure networks and data—Scrutinise access (as in carefully choosing who has access to what, depending on their level of clearance).

Implement endpoint hardening standards -

Set configuration baselines for patching, turning off unnecessary services/features, application safelists, and antivirus across infrastructure endpoints.

Deploy continuous network monitoring -

Implement network security analytics tools, IDS/IPS, and SIEM solutions to monitor infrastructure networks and detect threats.

Prioritise ICS security -

Identify and evaluate unique risks associated with industrial control systems for airport operations like HVAC, power, lighting etc.

Provide focused staff training -

Educate infrastructure and ICS teams on risks, threats, and security best practices tailored to their critical environments.

Develop incident response plans -

Have comprehensive response plans ready for infrastructure-focused incidents like ICS malware, DDoS attacks, or device hijacking.
Proactively building robust and resilient security tailored to infrastructure needs is vital to avoiding disruptive cyber incidents for aviation businesses.

The Next Flight Path for Aviation Cybersecurity

As connectivity expands across aviation infrastructure, threats multiply exponentially. Airlines and airports can no longer view cybersecurity as just an IT concern. To avert catastrophe, it must become an enterprise-wide strategic priority with robust investments made.
Yet aviation leaders often need more specialised expertise for securing complex operational technology and industrial control systems underlying operations. Keeping infrastructure and planes in the sky demands partnering with leading cybersecurity professionals.
Microminder Cybersecurity brings over a decade of aviation cybersecurity experience protecting critical air transport systems and data. MicroMinder's aviation-focused cyber services include

  • Vulnerability assessments and penetration testing tailored to ICS networks
  • Policy and control implementation for segmented aviation infrastructure zones
  • Monitoring and response capabilities for threats across IT/OT networks
  • Ongoing staff training on aviation cyber risks and compliance
  • Incident response retaining to minimise outage impacts

The aviation industry maintains ambitious goals for efficiency, innovation and growth. But turbulence lies ahead in the form of escalating cyber threats. Now is the time for airlines, airports, and partners to chart a flight plan for a secure, resilient airspace ecosystem—partner with the cybersecurity experts at Microminder to navigate the challenges ahead confidently. Join 2500+ businesses in bolstering the security of their operations. Book a call with us today.

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