Wi-Fi system 'safe', says Boeing

An aircraft cabin is a 'challenging environment' for a wireless LAN, but Boeing is confident that they can make it secure

The unit at Boeing responsible for developing in-flight Wi-Fi equipment has defended itself in the face of comments that such airborne wireless connectivity will be insecure.

The market for wireless LANs that can be used on flights appears to be set to take off and is a natural extension of Wi-Fi offerings in terminals and other public places. Carriers such as British Airways and Germany's Lufthansa have been trialling Boeing's Connexion system.

However, security experts at ICSA Labs, a division of TruSecure, are concerned about what they characterise as potential network weak spots and other human factors inside a cramped cabin. They pointed out that Wi-Fi and Ethernet are well established but have never been exposed to such extreme environments as an aeroplane.

Bob Dietterle, Connexion by Boeing's CTO, told silicon.com: "We have been operating and flying our system for almost three years. We have used IT and security professionals to hammer the system to find traffic bottlenecks and vulnerabilities. Yes, this is a challenging environment but that is why we have done so much network, security, EMI and flight safety testing."

Connexion uses satellite connections at many megabits per second (Mbps) to connect a plane to the terrestrial internet. Passengers then get access, at speeds expected to be in the region of 156Kbps when commercial services kick off, using laptops and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices such as PDAs.

Another of TruSecure's warnings is that "the system has to re-authenticate every time it goes out of range of a Wi-Fi station on the ground and comes in range of another. This creates a stress on the system and frequent crashes... It provides a path into the inboard system for hackers, just like locking and unlocking the door to a house."

But Connexion's Dietterle rejected that assessment. He said: "This is really not how our system works and is really spoken from a position of ignorance in terms of how satellite-based communications operate. That's why Boeing is uniquely positioned to develop and bring a system like Connexion forward into the market -- it's one of our core competencies."

Connexion maintains a satellite connection with its Network Operations Center and coordinates satellite hand-offs. It says it maintains a secure virtual private network (VPN) session -- VPNs being a must for business users contemplating the service to stay in touch with their company networks -- through satellite handovers.

A spokesman for BA said following its trial with Connexion the airline is evaluating results with a view to making a final commercial decision in the autumn. He said feedback from those involved, including passengers, has been good and the technology has proven "robust". BA is now working on developing its business case, he added.

Connexion by Boeing, who have for two years operated a 737-400 testbed aircraft, said its data on security testing has from this summer been accepted by the airlines, the UK's Civil Aviation Authority, Germany's LBA and the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC).