Malaysian Airlines Flight 370’s mysterious disappearance should frighten anyone who travels. Nearly two weeks after the plane took off from Kuala Lumpur, neither the plane nor its 239 passengers have been found. Numerous observers have questioned how in the modern age a Boeing 777 jet can just vanish. The answer appears to be all too easily.
We still have no idea how the plane’s flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was diverted, whether the change was made remotely or made on board. One theory that has been brought up in the reporting is that a hijacker could have manipulated the flight path using a cell phone or other electronic device. Another possibility is that someone on the ground used such a device to alter the flight plan before the plane even took off. While this theory seems unlikely, the idea that a jetliner, bus or car could be hacked and controlled by someone hoping to inflict damage or cause chaos is a possibility we should not ignore.
Back in 2010, the New York Times reported on a study conducted by computer scientists at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Washington that found that a person could hack into cars’ computers “without having any direct physical access to the car.” The experts were able to “take over the vehicle’s basic functions, including control of its engine.” If these experts could figure out how to hack into the computers, could someone with malicious intent, such as a terrorist group, do the same?
The concern stems from the increasingly computerized nature of our automobiles. While new features like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and OnStar security in cars are convenient for consumers, the new technology comes with many security risks. Computers control many of the operations it takes to power and operate an automobile. Now these computers are being used in tandem with Wi-Fi and other devices that require connection to external networks, making the car easier to hack.
Consider Google’s driverless car that has received a lot of media attention in recent months. Imagine that self-driving cars like this one are all driving around New York City. In order to communicate with the other cars on the road, the car’s computer systems need to connect to the same network as all the other cars in New York. An advanced hacker could disrupt that communication, or maybe even get the cars to crash into each other. This would leave the city in a state of chaos, and possibly provide an opportunity for another attack.
A similar problem could happen on a large jet like Malaysia Airlines flight 370. A passenger or person on the ground with malicious intent could hack into the jet’s computers prior to departures and change the jet’s flight path. Malaysia has stated that the plane was hijacked, and the computer’s flight path “deliberately” altered. This could have happened from outside the cockpit.
In today’s world, technological advances never thought possible are happening every day. We have the ability to know about events halfway across the world in a matter of seconds via social media. The disappearance of Flight 370 challenges our ability to know everything happening in the world at a given instant, which is why the story has riveted audiences across the globe. But should we really be surprised about the ability to make a jet disappear when a plane’s computers could get hacked from the outside? We shouldn’t be too surprised at all.
Hopefully this incident will lead to additional safety measures on airplanes and streaming of in-flight data. But I also hope the all-too-possible theory that the plane could have been hijacked externally leads to improved security of the flight’s computers. The fact that aviation experts contend that such hacking is a “possibility” in the disappearance should concern us all. The damage that could be caused without even physically hijacking plane or car is pretty remarkable.
We must recognize that the very conveniences we enjoy due to technological advancements make it easier for tampering to occur. As a society we must decide when to limit technology because it makes us less safe, or at least delay releasing new communication technologies before the security of the networks has been verified.
This process is not easy, and neither is hacking into computers that operate cars, buses, trucks and airplanes. Yet both can be done. We just need to make cybersecurity more of a priority, as we could face problems far beyond having our credit card information stolen. Technology has its limits. The better we imagine right now what technology will look like in the future, the more prepared we will be to secure ourselves from its possible externalities. Our personal, national and international security depends on it.