Research Shows Hackers Are Attacking Airlines More Than Ever

Los Angeles, United States - October 20th, 2018: Southwest Airlines landing at LAX (Tom Bradley International Airport) in Los Angeles at mid day.

a person standing in front of a building: traveler, airport, laptop

Hackers are targeting airlines. We saw it with Cathay Pacific Airlines’ data hack of 9.4 million passengers in 2018, and some are even saying that might have been the case with Southwest Airlines’ outage last week. But now there is research to back it up.

Netscout, a provider of application and network performance management products, found that cyber attacks against airlines have increased by 15,000 percent between 2017 and 2018. That’s not a typo. That’s 15,000 percent.

“Cybercriminals have traditionally concentrated attacks on internet service providers, telecoms, and cable operators,” Hardik Modi, Netscout’s senior director for threat intelligence, told Forbes. “While those categories still represent prime targets, they are now relatively well protected.”

Airlines, it seems, are easier targets.

Last year, the airline industry had 10 major outages which was the most since 2015, according to Sungard Availability Services, which tracks major airline IT outage incidents.

According to Netscout, cyber attacks or Distributed Denial-Of-Service (DDoS) attacks are to blame for some of the outages.

“Disruptions to air travel are felt immediately,” Modi said. “We’re all used to seeing images of grounded flights on the evening news, while delayed passengers make their frustrations known over social media channels.”

A DDoS attack isn’t always noticeable by air travelers such as with the Southwest outage which grounded planes. Some DDoS attacks may just cause an airline site to go slower than usual as it takes a lot of network and manpower to stop them.

“While full-blown and sustained outages are typically what get the most widespread attention, there are also significant consequences to many DDoS attacks that don’t gain the same kind of public and media visibility,” Modi said.

It’s not exactly clear why hackers are targeting the airline industry.

Modi said, “Airlines are unfortunately a major target, due to their huge dependence on computer networks for everything from customer-facing activities such as bookings and support, to vast back-office functions which often affect multiple entities involved in an aviation business. Cybercriminals could be targeting and impacting any of these functions with any number of intended consequences in mind.”

Whatever the reasoning, the attacks are getting bigger and more complex. If you thought the Southwest outage was bad, Modi says it could be worse, and may soon affect more travelers.

“The maximum attack size recorded last year reached a staggering 245 Gbps (billions of bits per second, a measure of internet bandwidth). When comparing this to the maximum attack sizes recorded in 2016, which reached 124 Gbps, you begin to understand the increasing severity of these attacks,” says Modi.

The airline industry will continue to be targeted by hackers, but until then, you can protect yourself as a traveler. Carriers that have gone through recent or multiple mergers are more at risk from an IT outage or attack than others.

It’s also better to book early-morning flights as they’re less likely to be affected by an IT outage which usually occurs in the afternoon or evening. If you don’t have a choice in your flight times, travel insurance can be well worth the cost.

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