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article image'Joke Tweet' gets cybersecurity expert barred from United flight

By Megan Hamilton     Apr 21, 2015 in Internet
A prominent cybersecurity researcher ran afoul of United Airlines last week after he joked on Twitter that the airline's onboard computer systems could be hacked.
The airline was not amused.
Chris Roberts, founder of the cybersecurity firm One World Labs, tweeted that he thought he could deploy oxygen masks on board an airplane, The Telegraph reports.
What did he Tweet?
"Find myself on a 737/800, lets [sic] see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM,? Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? 'PASS OXYGEN ON' Anyone? :)"
Immediately after that he tweeted to his followers that this would be a bad idea.
A few days after that, when he was en route from Colorado to San Francisco to speak at a major security conference on Saturday, he was stopped by corporate security when he tried to board a United flight.
The previous week, Roberts found himself being escorted off another United flight courtesy of the FBI and was questioned for four hours about his comment. His laptop and other electronics were also seized. His lawyer says he hasn't seen a search warrant yet, per The Telegraph.
Media interviews are part of Roberts' job and in recent weeks, he commented on potential weaknesses of airline systems, BBC News reported.
In a Fox News interview he said:
"Quite simply put, we can theorise on how to turn the engines off at 35,000 feet (10,668m) and not have any of those damn flashing lights go off in the cockpit."
On CNN, he said that he could connect to a computer that's under his seat to view data from the aircraft's engines, fuel and flight-management systems, BBC News reports.
Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for United said:
"Given Mr. Roberts's claims regarding manipulating aircraft systems, we've decided it's in the best interest of our customers and crew members that he not be allowed to fly United."
He added:
"However, we are confident our flight control systems could not be accessed through techniques he described."
Then Johnson was asked why United had barred Roberts from flying if its systems weren't vulnerable. His response:
"We made this decision because Mr. Roberts has made comments about having tampered with aircraft equipment, which is a violation of United policy and something customers and crews shouldn't have to deal with."
Then his lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) declared on Saturday that Roberts had just been prevented from boarding another flight — the one from Colorado to San Francisco — even though he already had his boarding pass and had cleared TSA checks, Cnet reports.
"Roberts was told to expect a letter explaining the reasons for not being allowed to travel on United," Andrew Crocker, of EFF, told Cnet. "He was flying from Colorado to SFO. United has already said that they would provide a refund."
The EFF noted that this latest incident was "disappointing and confusing," and added "As a member of the security research community, his [Roberts] job is to identify vulnerabilities in networks so that they can be fixed."
In fact, his company searches for vulnerabilities in IT systems in order to tighten their security before weak points can be accessed by criminals, The Telegraph notes. Roberts has been sharing his findings with the US Federal Aviation Administration.
"It is disappointing that United refused to allow him to board, and we hope that United learns that computer security researchers are a vital ally, not a threat," Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based EFF said.
Last week, the Government Accountability Office announced that some commercial aircraft could be vulnerable to hackers over their onboard wireless networks.
"Modern aircraft are increasing connected to the Internet," the report said. "This interconnectedness can potentially provide unauthorised remote access to aircraft avionics systems."
Fortunately, Roberts was able to take a flight on Southwest Airlines and arrived in San Francisco on the weekend. He will speak this week at another conference about vulnerabilities in computer security, The Telegraph reports.
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