Local pilot, cybersecurity expert weighs in on national small plane hacking alert

BRYAN, Tex. (KBTX) - The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday issued a security alert saying some small planes are vulnerable to cyber hacking.

John Romero spoke with KBTX about the report. Not only is he a pilot, but he's also the Assistant Director at the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

"The worst-case scenario, if they even did the exploit on this vulnerability would be that they could actually change the altitude or the airspeed on the plane itself," Romero said.

Romero explains that in order for the hack to take place, the hacker would have to physically get involved to hack the plane's CAN bus system, also known as the plane's nervous system.

The hacker would be able to possibly be able to control some of the avionics, but Romero said the chances of this actually happening are very slim.

"First, they would have to physically break into an airport which is traditionally surrounded by fences and barbed wire. Then, they would have to physically gain access to a hangar and get access to a plane that has this capability. They would then have to break into the plane," Romero said.

He adds that breaking into a plane also isn't easy to do.

"It's not like your car where you just pull a switch and the hood opens. Airplanes a lot more complicated, typically with screwdrivers and screws. It would take a long time," Romero explained.

He said even if a hacker were able to complete the hack in the CAN bus system, there would still be very little threat.

"It's a one and a million chance to even do anything, and even if you could hack the plane, the human is in charge, not the plane. We're still in charge. It's not an autonomous vehicle and we can still fly the plane," Romero said.

The warning issued the warning after mounting pressure from the cybersecurity group that found these small planes could be targets of hacking.

The Federal Aviation Administration says it's "an important reminder to remain vigilant" about physical and cybersecurity aircraft procedures.

Click here to learn more about the alert.