After being forced off a flight to San Francisco, spending hours of questioning by the FBI, and having all of his electronic gear confiscated, security expert Chris Roberts finally got a chance to present his side of the story to attendees at the RSA Conference on Thursday.
Roberts, whose adventurous journey to the week long annual gathering of information security professionals made national headlines, was barred from flying to the conference last weekend when he posted a tweet that speculated on the security vulnerabilities of the plane he was about to take. He later was able to fly on another airline.
“Please note that 140 characters can get you yelled at,” said Roberts at the start of his session, where he presented what he called “a hypothetical” case study of hacking a power plant. Roberts is a security researcher with One World Labs.
Although Roberts said that he would not address his problems with the FBI and the airlines during his presentation, he did respond to questions about the incident in a private interview after his talk. He revealed that he had been contacted by the Secret Service earlier this week and that they offered support, but did not offer specifics about how they might assist him.
Contrary to previous reports, Roberts said yesterday that none of his computer equipment had been returned. He also said that no airline had contacted him to discuss nearly “five years of frustrated research” into security weaknesses which could allow someone to hack into airplane controls.
“All of the data, if you know where to look for it, is available,” said Roberts. “Without dropping a plane out of the sky, how do you get their attention?”
Although the airlines have so far shown no interest in talking with the security researcher, Roberts said that he has had better luck opening dialogue with auto makers. After Roberts presented research showing how to deliver malicious code, known in the security industry as a “payload,” into a vehicle, several car manufacturers sat down with him to learn more.
Based on the presentation he delivered at the RSA conference yesterday, power plant operators might also be getting in touch with Roberts soon. The security researcher delivered a case study on how to successfully shut down the power grid in the Pacific Northwest.
Because some of his slides included sensitive information requiring redaction in the publicly available conference version, Roberts took the unusual step of forbidding photos during his 50 minute talk. To make his point about how easy it is to gain information about anyone from online resources, one of his slides was a screenshot which listed former Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s social security number.
Roberts claimed that his case study was built on work the Chinese had previously created to hack industrial control systems. It followed a complex series of actions that actually began with the installation of an Internet-connected Dacor IQ oven in the home of a key power plant manager.
Once he could hack into the oven (ridiculously easy according to Roberts), he gained control of the man’s WiFi connected home. From there, the injection of spyware (the target brought music from his home computer to the car and office), allowed him to access password protected networks at the power plant and bad things obviously ensue from there.
Roberts’ point at RSA this week, in its essential form, is that anything is hackable and this includes serious items like the power grid and airplanes which should be protected at all costs.
“Can you please get some of this right before I turn the lights off in California?” said Roberts at the end of his talk. For security executives, a good place to start might at least be sitting down and listening to what he has to say.