Aviate, Navigate, Cyberspace: Digital Security and the Aviation Industry

In December 1903, the Wright Brothers accomplished something that would fundamentally change the way that humans travel across the Earth. They proved that sustained powered flight was possible. On that day, humanity realized that we are not meant to be bound to this Earth—we are destined for the skies. Without the bravery and courage of the Wright Brothers, I would not be able to call myself a pilot today.

Many of you reading this might not know this, but today is International Civil Aviation Day. A day dedicated to the importance of civil aviation to the social and economic development of humanity. Normally I would spend this day with the Australian aviation community, talking about the history of aviation in the land down under and how it has had an impact on our lives. However, this year I had something special planned.

I was going to visit the Wright Flyer, which rests at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. I was incredibly excited to see the aircraft that gave birth to the age of flight, forming the moment of creation for an industry that would become my dearest passion.

As we all know, 2020 didn’t go as planned. Instead of gallivanting through the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, like a child in a chocolate factory, I stayed home, staring at the skies from my bedroom window. However, this solitude—uninterrupted by the excitement of space shuttles, epic military aircraft, and of course, the Wright Flyer—allowed me to ponder on just how far aviation has come. In just a smidge over a century, we have taken sustained flight of a few hundred meters and turned it into hundreds upon thousands of advanced jet aircraft circumnavigating the world every single hour, connecting us at an exponential rate of development with no signs of slowing down, global pandemic notwithstanding.

A parallel can be drawn to the invention of the Internet and its rapid and far-reaching influence on human society. Starting in the late 1960s, with the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), we have gone from computers the size of houses that only few can access to half the planet being online, with many having supercomputers resting right in their pockets.

Both of these pivotal inventions have profoundly shaped the way that human society has developed over the last 50 years. They have become so ubiquitous that we have normalized the immense power they afford us. I cannot imagine traveling across the world in any mode of transport other than an aircraft. I have become so dependent on my phone and its ability to access the Internet, that I honestly believe it’s an extension of my body. It has become an appendage more than a device, keeping me connected in both the real world and the digital one where we have all largely spent 2020.

Looking forward to 2021, it is evident that the aviation industry will return to normal. We will return to the skies, and seek out the adventure of flying. That being said, 2020 has also made us a more digitally connected society, one that is more reliant on the Internet than ever been before.

Flying and the Internet have largely remained separate, operating in silos that have not historically worked in conjunction with each other. While these systems operate independently of aircraft control systems, the increasing number of connections does pose a cybersecurity risk. As an example, as we choose longer and more direct flights to our destinations, not being connected to the Internet for an extended period is no longer acceptable. The explosion of In-flight entertainment and Wi-Fi connectivity systems (IFEC) reflect the consumer demand for connection, even on short to medium-haul flights. In the cockpit, we find that pilots are increasingly utilizing electronic flight bags (EFB’s) to avoid lugging around documents and other materials, all of which can be updated to the latest edition in an instant. And finally, the Federal Aviation Administration is currently updating its air traffic control system, switching from one that utilizes older radar technology to GPS-based aircraft tracking that is innately software-based and connected to the Internet.

It has become quite clear that the integration of the Internet and its connective power into the aviation system is inevitable. A 2016 PwC report found that while the aviation industry continues to evolve and embrace new technologies, it is imperative to bring cybersecurity to the forefront of this evolution. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has continually called for consistent regulatory standards to ensure the safety of the aviation industry and minimize the risk of potential cyberattacks.

I might not be in Washington right now, but I still feel that I’m witnessing the making of aviation history. As I write this piece, it’s clear, not only how far aviation has come, but also how far it still has to go. As aviation and the Internet continue to intertwine, protecting the safety of digital citizens, whether we’re working, socializing, or traveling home for the holidays at 36,000 feet, should always be a priority. 

— Written by Raj Burli, Digital Peace Now’s Global Ambassador