Internet access on flights could allow hackers to bring them down

Are you sitting down? Good. It's been a hard few months for fervent travellers, the news transforming itself into a seemingly interminable reel of plane mishaps and tragic accidents that could make even the most hardened jetsetter consider just staying home. We're loathe to add to such doom and gloom, but some worrying news about commercial flights has emerged that can't be ignored.

Most commercial airliners now come fully equipped with passenger internet access, allowing you to update your Twitter and post smug selfies on Instagram as your flight progresses. But a US watchdog agency has now warned that a plane's internet could be used by hackers to access its flight controls. 

"Internet connectivity in the cabin should be considered a direct link between the aircraft and the outside world, which includes potential malicious actors," a new report from the US Government Accountability Office said.

It's just one of a number of cybersecurity issues that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to address as air traffic control systems upgrade their technology. 

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta was quick to agree with the report's findings. "This threat will continue to evolve and it is something that needs to be at the forefront of our thinking," he told a US Senate oversight panel. 

The report found that firewalls installed on planes to prevent hackers from accessing avionics could be breached if flight control and passenger-accessed systems share wiring and routers. A virus or malware on websites visited by passengers could present an opportunity for attack on a plane's systems.

This is worst case scenario, of course, and following calls from US Congress the FAA will be working to ensure that no such vulnerability is ever exploited. Still, for now, perhaps make sure your phone is in airplane mode before you're past the gate.