Airspace Is In Jeopardy

Airspace Security Is In Jeopardy

As of today, we have entered day 18 of the partial U.S. Government shut down.  It will soon be the second longest shutdown in modern US history – a record we should not be striving for as responsible people.  This cutoff of government access for citizens and federal employees hurts everyone. This is especially true for those who must report to work without knowing if they will ever be paid.  Worse, the shutdown creates vulnerabilities that endanger the physical and logical security of the nation.

Among the hundreds of thousands of federal employees, and across agencies, there are cybersecurity professions who monitor, respond and thwart cyber threats.  Their layoff and absence from their normal workstations greatly threatened the security, safety, and efficiency of America’s airspace among many other critical sectors.  The shortsightedness of the political rhetoric may seem important now. However, when we begin to see the hacking of a critical aviation system let us be assured, we asked for it.   

Mission Essential

TSA employees continue to dutifully do their jobs at airports, although some have participated in sickouts.  These federal employees are just the representation of the physical security important to keeping bombs and terrorists off planes.  The same diligence is critical to assuring virus and malware are not sneaking aboard aviation-related systems. The cybersecurity of monitoring systems, GPS, sensors, as well as the detection of hacker patterns is as critical.  The people we don’t see are our first line of defense.

There are mission essential employees who are on duty during this shutdown.  Many are unhappy but are professionally carrying out their responsibilities. But what about the supporting cybercast and the army of contractors who are also locked out of government facilities and systems?   Their absence provides the gateway and the motivation for the underworld to through the hacker’s kitchen sink at the weakened systems we still have in place. I am confident this is not a mischaracterization of the facts because many of the project managers, coordinators, and partnership professionals play a vital role in our cyber protection.  Most of them are sitting at home.

This translates into something plain and simple: the reduction in force creates yet another gapping cyber hole that leads to network exploitation.  For aviation, cyber issues are very critical as “fate” is unforgiving when it comes to jets. Ransomware related to objects flying hundreds of miles per hour with limited fuel will undoubtedly be paid.  

A Letter to the President

The Air Line Pilot Association (ALPA) is a union, which represents more than 61,000 pilots employed by Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska, and others.  On January 2nd, ALPA sent a letter to the President urging him to end the shutdown immediately.  Union leaders explained the detrimental effects it has had on employees, customers, and the overall safety of our nation.  With a shortage of inspectors and regulators and other critical personnel, many airlines are prone to catastrophic consequences stemming from both physical and cybersecurity issues.  Laxed airspace system maintenance, and unmonitored air traffic control systems add to the already dangerous management of airspace. The lack of funding for these critical functions creates a new window of opportunity to attack us.  Some threats may manifest themselves at a later time. But, let’s be clear that our political leaders caused our increasing weakness disputing physical barriers and neglecting kinetic ones.

Aviation Attack Surface

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. has greatly improved its security to include additional cybersecurity measures.  The introduction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a push to properly staff cyber positions has created a new national capability.  But, if DHS along with all of its partners (like FAA), and contractors are unable to operate programs at full capacity, we are naïve to think that something like 9/11 could not happen again.  This time it may be 20 hackers electronically taking down a plane or airport system.

It is imperative that the government resolves the issues creating higher aviation risk today.  The fact is, it only takes one “slip-up” to cause a real national emergency that can destabilize the country’s foundation, economy, and economic outlook.  We, the people, cannot afford to see anymore day with low staffing levels and reduced research. This assures the integrity of critical systems.

Terrorists, along with any other enemies of the U.S. could already be taking advantage of this almost 3-week long shutdown.  There is no secret to that when plans crash – people die. This could occur as a result of changed maintenance records by hackers or other exploits like electronic caused mechanical failure.  Yes, it is true – many of the aviation infrastructures is privately owned. However, the government plays a very large role in aviation security and I hope they realize it before it is too late.  

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