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Crashing an In-Flight Entertainment System 322

Posted by kdawson
from the stress-testing dept.
rabblerouzer writes "Hugh Thompson, who was interviewed by Slashdot on the dangers of e-voting, now has a cool blog entry on how he was able to bring down the gaming/movie console on an airplane. He calls it one of the most interesting examples of a software 'abuse case' he has ever seen." Fortunately the IFE system is totally disjoint from the avionics.
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Crashing an In-Flight Entertainment System

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  • by LighterShadeOfBlack (1011407) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:32AM (#18092472) Homepage
    TFA:

    Unable to connect to database server
  • No replies and its already Slashdotted. And I thought nobody RTFAs.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Ooh... so close. There are people that read slashdot articles. There are also people that post to slashdot discussions. I'll simply leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out what the intersection of those two groups is.

      But seriously, those who generally read the article have less of a chance of getting a post higher up in the discussion that those who just jump in (Whether they jump in due to a high level of comfort in the subject, or sheer bravado.) This means that people who post early ar
  • Profit? (Score:5, Funny)

    by delirium of disorder (701392) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:35AM (#18092490) Homepage Journal
    0. Install wireless NIC to In-Flight Entertainment System
    1. Connect to wireless WAN and Internet
    2. Install web server and post link to slashdot
    3. Short sell airline stock
    4. ???
    5. Profit!
  • by eggoeater (704775) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:38AM (#18092520) Journal
    No kidding... It was in the late 80s on a new electronic scoring system they had just installed.
    I made a trivial and totally unintentional mistake in the set-up (punching in
    number of players, their names, etc) and it brought down the whole system.


  • by EvanED (569694) <evaned@ g m a i l.com> on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:40AM (#18092530)
    Hugh Thompson, who was interviewed by Slashdot on the dangers of e-voting, now has a cool blog entry on how he was able to bring down the gaming/movie console on an airplane

    What, did they link /. to it?
  • by Dun Malg (230075) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:44AM (#18092564) Homepage

    Fortunately the IFE system is totally disjoint from the avionics
    "Fortunately"? Hardly has anything to do with fortune. See, they made it separate on purpose. Might as well have said "fortunately the IFE system isn't connected to the pilot's brain" or "fortunately the IFE system isn't connected to the oxygen in the cabin", for all the fucking sense it makes.
    • by honkycat (249849)
      Umm, I'm as big a fan of linguistic pedantry as anyone, but according to the OED:

      fortunately, adv., In a fortunate manner; by or with good fortune, happily, luckily, successfully.

      It certainly was good fortune for the passengers that it was separate. It's not that way by happenstance, but it's still fortunate. I think the word you want to get all huffy about is fortuitous.

      fortuitous, a., That happens or is produced by fortune or chance; accidental, casual.

    • by idonthack (883680)
      Obviously you've never worked with people that write software.
  • This is a system someone thought would not be attacked. Someone was obviously wrong. All systems need to be considered as targets and protected as best they can. There is always a trade off of security versus accessibility but I don't see that as the problem in this case. They went cheap, quick, and dirty and put a system into place where security was a minor concern at best.
     
    • by Detritus (11846) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:56AM (#18092626) Homepage
      It doesn't have to be an "attack", it can be something as simple as a stuck switch or a book placed on top of a keyboard. On an airplane, you have to consider the two-year-old who wants to play with the pretty buttons.
    • by 1u3hr (530656)
      All systems need to be considered as targets and protected as best they can.

      Why bother spending time and money protecting a Tetris system? In TFA, it failed, they reboot, it works. Sorry if you lose your high-score.

  • TFA? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Pikoro (844299) <initNO@SPAMinit.sh> on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:51AM (#18092594) Homepage Journal
    Wow, 5 entire copies of TFA in the comments so far... Do you people not browse the comments before you post?

    Carefull, this may encourage people to actually RTFA...
  • Hm. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JoshJ (1009085) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @12:57AM (#18092628) Journal
    I'm not so sure I'd want to put my name out there as "the guy who brought down the computers on a plane". He'll be lucky not to land on the no-fly list, I think.
    • by f00Dave (251755)
      I'm not so sure I'd want to put my name out there as "the guy who brought down the computers on a plane". He'll be lucky not to land on the no-fly list, I think.

      Not anymore ... thank you, Slashdot, for the alt-press exposure! -grin-
    • Re:Hm. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by evilviper (135110) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @01:23AM (#18092778) Journal

      I'm not so sure I'd want to put my name out there as "the guy who brought down the computers on a plane"

      A sad commentary on the state of freedom in this country.
      • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

        by cheezedawg (413482)

        A sad commentary on the state of freedom in this country.

        It is absurd to treat the parent's post as anything other than the anonymous and hyperbolic ramblings that they are. The post is not a commentary on anything (well, a meaningful commentary at least).
    • by springbox (853816)
      Well, I think that's a really sad idea. I noticed people in the article's comments were basically saying the same thing, as if he reached into the system and altered the code to do something bad. He crashed a non-critical system that was either poorly written or poorly tested using the expected input devices. Just goes to show how paranoid some people have become.
      • intent... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Animaether (411575)
        sure, it wasn't critical - and I'd hate to have him get on a no-fly list or get fined or be banned from that airline.. or whatever.

        But this isn't just some kid accidentally hitting that remote, changing things to 5, then playing.. or then realizing they can hit up a few more times.. and then playing.

        This guy actually knew, in his mind, what was going on.. Not only that... at the point where things would go wrong, he actually paused, sat back, made the change that might make things go wrong and enjoyed the h
  • As a side note... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Rackemup (160230) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @01:07AM (#18092698) Homepage
    On a recent Air Canada flight the flight attendant actually came on the PA to tell everyone that the in-flight entertainment system was being turned on for our use. She then proceeded to tell us to be sure we didn't push 4 of the buttons on the main screen or else the screen at your seat would crash and they would be unable to fix it in flight. I thought it strange that a computer entertainment system installed in an aircraft would be a "work in progress" instead of just installing a full-functional system. Among the buttons we were not to touch? Weather and Flight tracking...of course.
    • by taniwha (70410) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @01:40AM (#18092852) Homepage Journal
      I fly across the pacific a few times every year and they always warn people to take it easy and be patient with the IFE "or it will crash" - which is certainly true - without trying I managed to spend 10 hours staring at a Windows CE "some thing bad happened" dialog box .... couldn't even turn the damn thing off when I wanted to sleep
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mspohr (589790)
      Last week I flew from SFO to Frankfurt on Lufthansa. Halfway through the 12 hour flight the entire entertainment system crashed and had to be reset... Imagine my surprise to see the Windows CE boot sequence on my screen...

      I can't believe that people in the real world build systems based on such a piece of crap.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by slacktide (796664)
        I wholeheartedly agree. You may find this picture relevant to your interests, I took it on Dec. 26 2006, onboard a Delta Airlines flight from New York to Seattle.

        http://i12.tinypic.com/2j17rc4.jpg [tinypic.com]

        The IFE had to be rebooted 3 or 4 times during a 5 hour flight, some people's screens never worked at all. Luckly I caught a snapshot of the offensive software's startup screen.

      • by Bob54321 (911744)
        I may have been hallucinating (I don't like flying a consequently drink lots...) but I'm sure the Qantas IFE runs on Linux.
    • Maybe the Air Canada aircraft I flew on last time were the exception rather than the rule, but I'm not at all surprised to hear something like this. They were clearly in drastic need of some upgrades. I just hope that they were skimping on maintaining the unimportant systems in order to afford to maintain the critical systems.
    • Torture! (Score:5, Funny)

      by MWoody (222806) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @07:29AM (#18094244)
      Wait wait wait, so let me get this straight: you have to sit in that seat and stare at the 4 buttons they specifically told you not to push? For hours on end? That is my own vision of a personal hell.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Don_dumb (927108)

      She then proceeded to tell us to be sure we didn't push 4 of the buttons on the main screen or else the screen at your seat would crash and they would be unable to fix it in flight.
      So what did happen when you pressed the buttons?
  • 0 I think the author meant 0 < value <= 5 instead. If it was truely as written, it should accept any number, since that basically means 0 (value = 5) and 0 is always 5...
    • by mr_zorg (259994)
      Ack, perhaps the author did exactly what I just did. Forgot to escape his < symbols... What I meant to say was:

      0 < value = 5
      I think the author meant 0 < value <= 5 instead. If it was truely as written, it should accept any number, since that basically means 0 < (value = 5) and 0 is always < 5...
      Shoulda hit "preview". Doh.
    • Since the number has to be between 1 and 4, you can do one of:

      • value = (value % 5)
      • value = (((value - 1) & 3) + 1)

      But, if you want to confuse them, use:

      value = ((12 >> value) & 3)

      as this gives you greycodes.

  • Okay (Score:4, Funny)

    by Mathness (145187) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @01:23AM (#18092782) Homepage
    Okay, who entered the number 5 and kept pushing +? Congratulation, you just crashed the server.
  • by Samarian Hillbilly (201884) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @01:52AM (#18092916)
    I was coming back from a conference wearing a hat with a promenent penguin on it, when our in-flight system crashed. As it was re-booting it was obvious to some of the more tech-minded passengers that it was running through the Linux boot sequence. I started hearing calls of "lynch the guy with the penguin hat", from the seats behind me...
  • by VirtualSquid (311810) * on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @01:53AM (#18092922) Homepage
    I suspect it might be fairly common for seat-back computers to crash?
    I don't know enough about Linux to understand what it said on my screen when it was trying (and failing) to boot back up again:
    http://washedashore.com/misc/inflight_error.jpg [washedashore.com]
    (This was April 23, 2005, on a flight from Bucuresti Romania to NYC.)
    -Ben
    • by iabervon (1971) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @02:38AM (#18093120) Homepage Journal
      Looks like the terminal was doing fine, but the server was down so it didn't have anything to run.
  • Abuse case (Score:4, Informative)

    by tcdk (173945) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @02:07AM (#18092998) Homepage Journal

    He calls it one of the most interesting examples of a software 'abuse case' he has ever seen.
    He doesn't get out much.... oh, on a plane?

    I think it's more of a case of bad quality control. If the testing environment of the developers had contained a single "lets throw an exception" or maybe a "lets try to lock up a process at 100%" test, they would have see that they needed to at a bit of exception handling (in the first case).

    But writing good test cases can be hard.

    Anyway. I've seen code like this tons of times. Some people apparently have issues with (how hard can it be), so they use equal instead, but one day, the step value is changed from 1 to 2 (make it go directly from 99 to 101), or some routine fails and returns a default value of -1. And suddenly the code is in the twilight zone.

    Anyway^2, I actually did find this rather un-interesting.
    • by iamacat (583406)
      Some people apparently have issues with (how hard can it be)

      Very hard, apparently.
  • Way too much effort (Score:3, Informative)

    by plsuh (129598) <plsuh@@@goodeast...com> on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @02:09AM (#18093012) Homepage
    Deliberately crashing the IFE system is no great accomplishment. At least some of the darn things crash themselves just fine with no abuse. I was on a Virgin Atlantic flight from Washington, DC to London a couple of years ago, and the IFE systems would crash on a regular basis by groups of four seats. You could be blissfully watching a movie and then poof, everything goes dark. The flight attendant would reset the system and then sometimes it would come back up and other times it would just sit there at a dark screen. Uptimes varied from 10 minutes to a couple of hours. Very, very frustrating, both for the kids trying to play but getting frustrated and cranky and for the parents trying to keep their sanity during an eight hour flight.

    --Paul
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Animats (122034)

      Virgin Atlantic flight ... to London a couple of years ago

      What, that low-end system with an Nintendo NES emulator and an analog TV tuner, run from an under-the-seat box that cuts into legroom?

  • by Tablizer (95088) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @02:10AM (#18093022) Homepage Journal
    "Today, Sesame Street was brought down by the number 5"
  • but it is connected to the sewage control system. Now we know the mysterious source of ice falling from the skies lately. Could it be?
  • TSA (Score:3, Funny)

    by sidb (530400) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @02:18AM (#18093050) Homepage
    Who let that guy onto the plane with a brain over 3 ounces? Don't they know that thing is a deadly weapon? Heads are going to roll.
  • Similar Crash (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Roger W Moore (538166) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @02:21AM (#18093056) Journal
    Several years ago I managed to crash an in flight entertainment system on a united flight completely inadvertently. The system in question required only had a few games for free with the rest costing money to unlock. Since I objected to having to pay for the games I restricted myself to the free games until suddenly in the middle of a game of pong it got more and more sluggish until the screen freezes, goes black and the system reset itself. I went back into pong, cranked up the number of balls to the max allowed (4 IIRC) and noticed that now it would crash within a minute or two.

    Playing around (there really was nothing better to do) I found that quickly wiggling the bat around with 4 balls on the screen would crash the system. After about the 4th or 5th crash the system came back up but this time with all the games enabled! After that I was careful not to crash the system but still about 30 minutes from landing it crashed again and came back up with only the free games.

    I wondered at the time how such an easily triggered failure could have been overlooked. Unlike the article my crash only affected my screen...but at least there was some beneficial affect!
  • by Spritzer (950539) * on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @02:27AM (#18093076) Journal
    Based on the description of the IFE system and having recently flown and played a version of Tetris which fits his description ..... Delta 767 I'll see if I can confirm the hack without the crash (I guess I'm just too nice) next week.
  • This would be all true and believable if it weren't for the fact that airlines stopped serving peanuts on flights a few years ago due to allergy complaints. If you have had peanuts served to you lately, let me know what airline it was because I miss them!

  • I flew Delta today, and they rebooted their IFE to try and address an issue. I thought it was pretty interesting when I saw the familiar linux boot messages appear, and indeed it was Red Hat--complete with Tux icon. I hadn't heard of Delta's use of Linux, and if it wasn't for the reboot you would never have know--who knows where Linux is in use by the masses, and don't realize how important it is becoming to them?

    Unfortunately, the reboot didn't fix the issue. ;(
  • Level of Safety (Score:4, Informative)

    by s31523 (926314) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @09:18AM (#18094784)

    The entire plane entertainment system goes down (and thankfully the cascading system failure didn't spill over to the plane navigation system)!

    There was/is no danger of this happening. I develop software for major airline Flight Management Systems (FMS) and the entertainment system is physically separated from the FMS as well as other "flight critical" systems. Also, Software on an aircraft needs to be developed according to the guidelines of RTCA's DO-178B, which classifies the fallout of software into "levels". The most critical, Level A, like autopilot and flight controls requires very stringent evidence of verification. The least critical, Level E, requires basically no verification or documentation whatsoever, and this is what entertainment systems are developed under.

    There was a case in the early days when in-flight entertainment systems were first put on planes where a short in the video system crashed other critical computer components due to the entertainment system and flight system being on the same electrical bus. This obviously caused changes to the rules, so now everything is separated.

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