Friday, July 27, 2012

Black Hatter's, Mad Hatter's and the FAA

This article tells the story of a hacker at the Black Hat convention demonstrating the ability to spoof the FAA's Air Traffic Control System into believing a phantom aircraft was inbound to touch down on the runway. Hacker Shows Air Traffic Control Danger With 'Ghost Planes' 

For background, I spent over 20 years in the USAF, working on Air Traffic Control radar systems. I watched the progression from electron tube radars to state of the art computer based systems. In truth I retired almost 20 years ago, so things have changed, but slowly and much if what I worked on is still in service. 

In the simplest of terms, the radar of the past used by the controller to guide airplanes around sent out a big radio pulse, it bounced off the metal of the aircraft, came back in the antenna and was displayed to the controller as a target. As the systems advanced a device called a transponder was installed on aircraft. This responded to signals from the ground and "Replied" in the form of codes which relayed a whole new set of information about the aircraft, most importantly the altitude of the plane and its ident code, the "squawk". This became the little numbers seen on radar scope as 0380 or 5689. But all of this information was processed at the ATC radar's location and displayed along with the old radar paint. So the controller saw both the live target and the digital data that went with it. In today's ATC further advances can and do fill books about how the live and squawk data is now sent out for processing in huge data centers and linked to things like crew lists and flight plan info. But at its core a radar painted the airplane and a real target had to be generated.

ADS-B is part of the NEXTGEN and removes the radar from the picture. The only information seen by a controller is the data transmitted from the airplane. As a result the ATC system must assume if it is getting data it must be valid. If as stated, a hacker can spoof the data and make planes appear at will FAA has a problem and a big one. 

However, the entire NEXTGEN project is costing a huge pile of money as well as suffering from completion date issues, and it will require even more time and money before it is done. 

Here is an interesting quote “The bad news is that out of the $11 billion designated for modernization of the ATC system in February, only about one-third, or $4 billion, will likely be dedicated to NextGen programs and will require four years of annual congressional appropriations. Who in this room has any reasonable degree of confidence that we’re going to actually get the funds necessary to implement NextGen by 2020? . ."
Air Traffic Control Newsletter #94 June 2012

Lots and lots more money. To equip a general aviation aircraft, like Adam's old plane can cost almost $30,000. To do the same for a commercial aircraft, about a quarter million.
 ADS-B: Frequently Asked Questions

It also appears the FAA wants to equip all ground vehicles on the tarmac to also have ADS-B. So count every fuel truck, fire truck, luggage truck, tug, maintenance vehicle, car, pick-up, what have you, at every airport and multiply times some unknown figure between $0 and $30,000 and you get a lot more money. "ASD-B is a nifty solution where
every vehicle has a transmitter so
they can see and talk to each other..."

Centerline the Voice of Airports
I find it amusing under the heading of Trains good, Planes Bad the writer attempts to frighten the reader with quotes like "Costin showed he could use just $2,000 worth of store-bought electronics to convince an ADS-B, the FAA's preferred air traffic control system...". It is not the preferred system, it isn't even installed yet. I can say that my preferred mode of transportation is a $200K BMW 750i, but last I looked there isn't one in my driveway so any problems with that make of automobile are not something I worry about.

Costin then of course goes on to tell us the worst case that could happen, "Costin invited his audience to imagine a worst-case scenario, saying, "Imagine you inject a million planes; you don't have that many people to cross-check. You can do a human resource version of a denial of service attack on an airport."

The original post which is at the Huffington Post is run with no attribution and no by-line which I thought odd. But CNN, Information Week and Agence France Press are all sited in the article as sources. Given their history of accuracy and the time lag on implementation plus cost over runs, the best I can say is Happy Flying Citizen! We still have some time left.
The Radarman

No comments:

Post a Comment