American Airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft with registration N818AL landing at Athens International Airport.

Enlarge / American Airlines Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner aircraft with registration N818AL landing at Athens International Airport. (credit: Nur Photo | Getty Images)

Late one night last September, security researcher Ruben Santamarta sat in his home office in Madrid and partook in some creative googling, searching for technical documents related to his years-long obsession: the cybersecurity of airplanes. He was surprised to discover a fully unprotected server on Boeing's network, seemingly full of code designed to run on the company's giant 737 and 787 passenger jets, left publicly accessible and open to anyone who found it. So he downloaded everything he could see.

Now, nearly a year later, Santamarta claims that leaked code has led him to something unprecedented: security flaws in one of the 787 Dreamliner's components, deep in the plane's multi-tiered network. He suggests that for a hacker, exploiting those bugs could represent one step in a multi­stage attack that starts in the plane’s in-flight entertainment system and extends to highly protected, safety-critical systems like flight controls and sensors.

Boeing flatly denies that such an attack is possible, and it rejects his claim of having discovered a potential path to pull it off. Santa­marta himself admits that he doesn't have a full enough picture of the aircraft—or access to a $250 million jet—to confirm his claims. But he and other avionics cybersecurity researchers who have reviewed his findings argue that while a full-on cyberattack on a plane's most sensitive systems remains far from a material threat, the flaws uncovered in the 787's code nonetheless represent a troubling lack of attention to cybersecurity from Boeing. They also say that the company's responses have not been altogether reassuring, given the critical importance of keeping commercial airplanes safe from hackers.

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