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Security in Next Generation Air Traffic Communication Networks

Martin Strohmeier


A multitude of wireless technologies are used by air traffic communication systems during different flight phases. From a conceptual perspective, all of them are insecure as security was never part of their design and the evolution of wireless security in aviation did not keep up with the state of the art.

Recent contributions from academic and hacking communities have exploited this inherent vulnerability and demonstrated attacks on some of these technologies. However, these inputs revealed that a large discrepancy between the security perspective and the point of view of the aviation community exists.

In this thesis, we aim to bridge this gap and combine wireless security knowledge with the perspective of aviation professionals to improve the safety of air traffic communication networks. To achieve this, we develop a comprehensive new threat model and analyse potential vulnerabilities, attacks, and countermeasures. Since not all of the required aviation knowledge is codified in academic publications, we examine the relevant aviation standards and also survey 242 international aviation experts. Besides extracting their domain knowledge, we analyse the awareness of the aviation community concerning the security of their wireless systems and collect expert opinions on the potential impact of concrete attack scenarios using insecure technologies.

Based on our analysis, we propose countermeasures to secure air traffic communication that work transparently alongside existing technologies. We discuss, implement, and evaluate three different approaches based on physical and data link layer information obtained from live aircraft. We show that our countermeasures are able to defend against the injection of false data into air traffic control systems and can significantly and immediately improve the security of air traffic communication networks under the existing real-world constraints.

Finally, we analyse the privacy consequences of open air traffic control protocols. We examine sensitive aircraft movements to detect large-scale events in the real world and illustrate the futility of current attempts to maintain privacy for aircraft owners.

University of Oxford