Cybersecurity at a higher altitude: taking a closer look at cybersecurity in aviation

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Cybersecurity at a higher altitude: taking a closer look at cybersecurity in aviation

We all know that aviation was among the least suspected industries in the past with fewer cyberattacks. However, this has changed.

From political attacks to data breaches, the airline industry has been facing increased attacks due to its increasing dependence on vulnerable technology for operational efficiency and customer experience.

Why are airline companies under severe cybersecurity risk? What are some of the security risks that airline companies are facing? What are some of the dangerous attacks on the airline industry? What measures can be undertaken by them to mitigate and treat the risks?

Let us explore the answers to these questions through our blog.

Cyber risk in the aviation industry

The global increase in trade, the increasing demand for travel, and the stability in fuel pricing are signs that the airline industry is flying toward new growth levels. The global aviation industry market will grow with a CAGR of 4.63% from 2023 to 2027.

Currently, there are 5,000+ airline companies around the globe, with Air China having the largest market share of $23.33 billion.

It points toward the growing competition in the airline industry. It also proves why airline companies are desperate after integrating new technologies such as IoT, big and virtual, and augmented reality. They are doing so to improve operational efficiency, improve customer experience, and generate new revenue streams.

According to a research report, over 76 percent of airline companies use IoT to improve efficiency, 35% new revenue, and 58% customer experience.

At the center of the digital transformation of airline operations lies the IoT (Internet of Things). From parking and arrival to leaving the airport, IoTs ensure the safety and comfort of the passengers.

OTs (Operational Technology) is used to improve operational efficiency in other areas, such as SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Report Systems), Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), and other Flight Management Systems (FMS). Companies also use in-flight entertainment systems to enhance the customer experience.

These technologies are highly vulnerable to cyberattacks because of a lack of cybersecurity by design.

By exploiting the vulnerabilities in these technologies, a cyber attacker can engage in multiple malicious activities, like altering the information displayed on control systems (for example, displaying a fake number of flights that do not exist), eavesdropping on onboard flight components, and injecting it with tailored data. Additionally, the attacker can access sensitive PII (personally identifiable information), like what happened in the Scandinavian Airlines cyberattack.

A modern flight system operates using some of the most complex technologies interconnected with the internal network, meaning a single vulnerability exploitation can cause the compromise of the entire system.

Some of the common cyber attacks faced by the airline industry

According to KonBriefing Research, the aviation industry faced a massive total of 38 cyber attacks.

The following are all the possible cyber threats that aviation companies may face:

Ransomware gang attacks

Aviation companies are most at risk from ransomware gangs that are financially or politically motivated. There are also hacktivist attacks solely driven by personal motives, neither financial nor political. The notorious ransomware gang Lockbit is known for targeting the aviation industry and being behind most aviation industry-related attacks.

Advanced persistent threats

State-sponsored or financially motivated attackers engage in Advanced Persistent Threat attacks aimed at stealing or altering all the sensitive information from aviation companies before engaging further in fully tailored phishing attacks. 

What makes advanced persistent attacks dangerous is they exploit zero-day vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure. These vulnerabilities arise due to the lack of periodic testing and are typically invisible due to high-security automation and the lack of human touch in cybersecurity in aviation companies. APTs are one of the most dangerous attacks of 2023, affecting businesses worldwide, not just airline companies.

State-Sponsored Attacks: 

These are state-sponsored, politically motivated attacks primarily aimed at disrupting critical infrastructure services, stealing their intelligence data, and causing nationwide chaos. Since aviation is one of the critical infrastructures, companies must prepare for these attacks.

DDoS attacks

Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS, attacks flood the network with excess traffic, causing outages and network malfunctioning. It is targeted toward critical infrastructure services. It is one of the many attacks that aviation companies face, especially from state-sponsored attackers who seek to impede a country’s vital services like travel.

Data Breaches

Data breaches are attacks targeted at aviation companies for altering or stealing sensitive and confidential data. Since all airline companies store customer-specific information and other sensitive information in their IT infrastructure, attackers aim at stealing that information or locking them out until the ransom payment. In most cases, attackers do not unlock the data for the companies even after the ransom payment. It is one of the most dangerous threats that airline companies face today, especially those with big data sets consisting of customer information stored in their IT infrastructure.

Phishing attacks

Attackers steal personal information specific to customers and target them through tailored phishing attacks, which are social engineering attacks that ask the victims to give out their personal and financial information. 

Often attackers steal data through a data breach first and then engage in tailored phishing attacks targeted toward specific customers, posing as trustworthy and authorized persons.


With politically motivated attacks on the rise, cyber espionage attacks have become more frequent in the aviation industry. It is an attack where the attacker or attackers try to eavesdrop on or gain access to confidential information for political, economical, or personal motives. 

It is a type of attack usually carried out by politically motivated cyber criminals who steal state-specific information and sell that information to enemies of the state for political motives.

Cybersecurity for airline companies

In response to the increasing cyber-attacks, regulatory bodies have issued cybersecurity frameworks such as the ASSURE Framework, based on the CREST program launched by UK aviation. 

There are also regulations issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that guarantee a baseline level of cybersecurity in airline companies. But these regulatory bodies have failed to:

  • Issue guidelines for risk categorization in the aviation industry,
  • permit independent cybersecurity assessments,
  • render training programs to aviation experts, and
  • mandate periodic testing and monitoring in companies.

Without the right cybersecurity expertise, airline companies face challenges in implementing frameworks effectively. Challenges could range from not having the right personnel for assessing OTs and other technologies deployed for vulnerabilities.

The primary reason behind these cyber attacks is the lack of a cybersecurity posture encompassing modern adversarial TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) rendered by cyber experts. 

There is also a high degree of cybersecurity skills gap in the industry, making it even more vulnerable to cyberattacks. The skills gap is primarily due to the “automation paradox” caused by high reliance on automation, which erodes skills and makes personnel slow in identification and response in a suspicious situation.

Airline companies need to consider taking assistance from cybersecurity experts to tailor a framework that works best for them. Not just this, they also need to ensure that they deploy a team of cybersecurity experts who work round the clock for protection.

The Shark Striker approach

SharkStriker offers a team of cybersecurity experts who have worked with clients across industries. The following are the services that we offer that can help airline companies combat the most immediate cybersecurity challenges in their industry:

 Cybersecurity as a service This is a holistic service that includes a range of services and solutions, such as:

Cybersecurity Framework 

As a part of cybersecurity-as-a-service, we assist organizations in identifying and implementing the framework that works effectively for their IT infrastructure and scope. 

Through the identification of the best practices in security, we implement the recommendations stated by regulatory and global bodies such as GDPR, CREST, FAA, and others.

Enablement of real-time protection

The next step after identifying and implementing the best cybersecurity framework for the organization is to deploy the right security solutions along with industry best practices for the real-time protection of all the organization’s critical data assets. This includes establishing identity and access management systems, deploying real-time network security solutions, and deploying solutions like endpoint detection and response that cater to each endpoint’s protection.

Establishing a Security Operations Center (SOC)

The Security Operations Center consists of a team of cybersecurity professionals dedicated to working in multiple areas of cybersecurity, such as threat hunting, incident response, and compliance. They add a human touch to the existing security solutions and ensure that there is round-the-clock protection of the IT infrastructure. We understand that setting up a dedicated SOC can be not only expensive but also ineffective without the right expertise; that is why we offer SOC as part of our cybersecurity as a service. Aviation companies can make the most of the expertise and solutions offered through this service to improve their cybersecurity posture.

Incident Response Management

A cyber attack can be damaging to an airline company, with a high risk of loss of data assets and an even greater risk to the company’s reputation. In the case of cyber incidents, most organizations are not equipped with the expertise and tools to contain the damage caused. We intend to fill this gap by offering a dedicated service for incident response that covers the entire cycle of incident response.

Security Auditing and Testing

Without a clear picture of the status quo of the cybersecurity posture of an organization, it is almost impossible for experts to take the right measures. This is where security auditing and testing come into the picture. Security auditing involves a thorough examination of the organization’s cybersecurity posture, whereas testing involves the deployment of real-world attack techniques to measure the response capabilities of an organization’s security measures across multiple platforms. Pen tests form a critical part of security testing and can either be for the web application, the APIs, or any other areas that need to be tested for security.

Security Awareness

In addition to the security testing and implementation of the right security measures and technology to ensure optimal cybersecurity posture, we also engage in taking measures to bridge awareness gaps in the organization for cybersecurity. Since most of the attacks involve the exploitation of human errors, we intend to mitigate the security awareness gaps through training and the preparation of policies and procedures for clarity in action during a cyber incident.

To conclude

The aviation sector is faced with increased competition and high pressure to increase productivity and improve its customer experience. For this, they are deploying IoT-based technological solutions and operation technologies that are highly vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Some of the common cyberattacks to which airline companies are vulnerable include ransomware attacks, state-sponsored attacks, phishing attacks, advanced persistent threats, and others.

These attacks cannot be defended against using standalone measures and the deployment of frameworks suggested by some of the regulatory and global bodies since they come with their own set of limitations. Companies need cybersecurity by design and round-the-clock security for their IT infrastructure that is tailored by cybersecurity experts.

Companies must implement a real-time cybersecurity solution led by cybersecurity professionals that provides round-the-clock protection of all digital assets. They need to consider a dedicated team of cybersecurity experts who can render seamless identification of all the risks, prepare risk treatment plans, and implement and monitor the right set of security measures and controls for posture improvement and risk mitigation.

SharkStriker offers a range of holistic cybersecurity solutions and services under cybersecurity as a service, such as SOC as a service, incident response, red teaming, security testing, and more, that can help aviation companies prepare themselves for modern-day attackers.


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