United Airlines Bans Security Researcher For Tweet

by Lauren Holter

Joking about hacking an airplane's internal systems is a good way to get kicked off a flight — just ask security researcher Chris Roberts. Last week, Roberts was removed from a United flight for tweeting about hacking the plane's systems. The FBI took away his laptop and questioned him for hours about the "threat." Roberts was scheduled to fly again on Saturday from Colorado to San Francisco to speak at a security conference, but has been banned from the airline for the time being.

Roberts' initial tweet read: "Find myself on a 737/800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM,? Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? "PASS OXYGEN ON" Anyone? :)" As the founder of a cybersecurity firm, One World Labs, it's Roberts' job to find vulnerabilities in IT systems and warn companies about them before they're targeted by criminals. United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson told BBC:

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. However, we are confident our flight control systems could not be accessed through techniques he described.

Perhaps United should hire Roberts to test their planes rather than banning him from flying with the airline.

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Since it's a little bit of a contradiction to ban Roberts and then say that his threat was impossible to carry out, the BBC asked Johnson why Roberts couldn't fly if the plane's systems couldn't be breached. Johnson said: "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." United plans to send a letter to Roberts in a few weeks explaining its decision.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) representing Roberts told BBC: "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." The FBI interrogation came not long after Fox News published a report on Roberts' research about airplane systems' safety, quoting Roberts saying:

We can still take planes out of the sky thanks to the flaws in the in-flight entertainment systems. Quite simply put, we can theorize on how to turn the engines off at 35,000 feet and not have any of those damn flashing lights go off in the cockpit.

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