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Banned security expert hacked into airplane systems, says the FBI

Last month we reported on the case of professional security expert Chris Roberts, apparently banned from United Airlines and questioned by police for several hours over a tweet discussing his flight’s on-board systems. A warrant published online suggests Roberts actually went way beyond just tweeting about accessing the aircraft’s controls.

As Wired reports, the FBI claims in the warrant that Roberts used a cable to hack into a plane’s computer systems and even deviated its course slightly while it was in midair. It’s not clear whether this happened on the same flight that led to Roberts being detained; the conversations are from several separate interviews between the hacker and the FBI.

For his part, Roberts has always said that his intentions are to highlight flaws in airline systems before someone can use them for nefarious purposes. When speaking to Wired, he wasn’t able to confirm or deny the claim that he logged into the flight controls, but he did say “there is context that is obviously missing which obviously I can’t say anything about.”

“[Roberts] stated that he thereby caused one of the airplane engines to climb resulting in a lateral or sideways movement of the plane during one of these flights,” FBI special agent Mark Hurley explained in the warrant application. “He also stated that he used Vortex software after comprising/exploiting or ‘hacking’ the airplane’s networks. He used the software to monitor traffic from the cockpit system.”

Roberts has been investigating the security of aircraft networks for a number of years and has had several conversations with airlines, hardware vendors and the FBI in that time. It would seem on this occasion he’s overstepped the line between well-intentioned research and putting the safety of passengers at risk. “Over [the] last five years my only interest has been to improve aircraft security … given the current situation I’ve been advised against saying much,” Roberts tweeted over the weekend.