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FBI Claims Researcher Actually Took Control Of Plane

The FBI is stepping up its investigation of a computer security expert who joked on Twitter about airplane security vulnerabilities, saying he may have previously taken control of a plane.

Chris Roberts was detained for questioning by the FBI after a flight in April, during which he sent a tweet joking that he could take control of the plane he was on by hacking into its Wi-Fi system. Apparently, the FBI’s interest was not sparked solely by the tweet, but also by answers that Roberts had given during an interview in February, according to the Canadian news outlet APTN.

In an application for a search warrant filed almost immediately after Roberts sent the fateful tweet, which was recently obtained by APTN, FBI Special Agent Mark Hurley claims that Roberts had confessed to compromising in-flight entertainment systems (IFE’s) on approximately 15 to 20 flights between 2011 and 2014. (RELATED: Twitter Joke Gets Security Expert Kicked Off Plane, Detained by FBI)

In one instance, Hurley asserts that Roberts went as far as to take control of the plane’s Thrust Management Computer and execute a course change, causing the airplane to gain altitude and make a brief sideways movement.

Roberts has consistently maintained that he never actually took control of an airplane outside of computer simulations, though he did acknowledge accessing IFE’s on at least 15 occasions to explore and observe data traffic as part of his research into potential vulnerabilities. Roberts says his actions were part of an effort to make federal officials aware of deficiencies in airplane communications systems, and that he never put any planes or passengers at risk.

While saying that he could not address the FBI’s accusation directly, Roberts told Wired that he believes his comments were taken out of context. (RELATED: Twitter Joke Exposes Serious Flaw in Airline Security, FBI Memo Says)

“That paragraph that’s in there is one paragraph out of a lot of discussions, so there is context that is obviously missing which obviously I can’t say anything about,” he said. “It would appear from what I’ve seen that the federal guys took one paragraph out of a lot of discussions and a lot of meetings and notes and just chose that one as opposed to plenty of others.”

In the tweet that originally sparked the controversy, Roberts wrote: “Find myself on a 737/800, lets see Box-IFE-ICE-SATCOM, ? Shall we start playing with EICAS messages? “PASS OXYGEN ON” Anyone ? :)”

After analyzing the technical language, the FBI determined that Roberts was referencing his familiarity with the plane’s communications systems, and suggesting that he could manipulate them to the point of making oxygen masks deploy. (RELATED: Hacking X-Ray Machines Could Get Guns Through Airport Security)

After questioning Roberts in relation to the tweet, agents seized several electronic devices, including his laptop, claiming that a warrant was pending.

Roberts allegedly was able to connect his computer to a port located under the seat in front of him called the Seat Electronic Box, and then used default ID’s and passwords to access the IFE, which in turn gave him access to other systems on the plane.

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