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Cybersecurity Essentials for Aviation and Aerospace

Cybersecurity Essentials for Aviation and Aerospace

Over the past few years, the aviation industry has been challenged as never before due to the global pandemic. However, one of its enduring challenges remains cybersecurity. At the same time, space is emerging as an operational domain, bringing unique cybersecurity considerations for defense organizations. This development provides the occasion for security practitioners throughout the wider aerospace community to work with policymakers and civil society to confront the common challenges of aviation and space and, in so doing, to realize the development of more resilient systems.

The aviation sector remains a prime target for cyberattacks. Airports, airlines, aircraft, subcontractors, and service providers handle massive amounts of personal data, including passport details and credit cards. The growing digitization of airplanes and the growing interconnection of components for navigation and communication systems have only created more touchpoints for cybercriminals to attack. As a result, the number of cyberattacks on the aviation industry has grown significantly.

The global aerospace cybersecurity industry was pegged at $26.3 billion in 2022 and is expected to hit $58.8 billion by 2032, registering a CAGR of 8.4% from 2023 to 2032. – Allied Market Research Report 

Security Challenges in the Aerospace and Aviation Industry

The aerospace and aviation industry faces critical IT security challenges due to systems interconnection, mission-critical infrastructures, and sensitive data. Cyber-attacks on flight controls, navigation, and communications networks pose serious—potentially catastrophic—risks: flights can be disrupted, safety compromised, or aircraft control granted to unauthorized users.

This adds to the supply chain vulnerabilities in the current industry. The global network supporting it is vulnerable to instilling vectors if elements are compromised or bad code is placed during manufacturing or distribution. The industry’s increased connectivity, both on the flight and on the ground, increases the threat surface, and satellite systems add other threats to its security.

Compliance with stringent standards is important and critical for safety, security, and efficiency in operations. To this effect, some of the standards it has to comply with include the following:

  • Compliance standards
  • Supply chain vulnerabilities
  • Diverse operation environments
  • Legacy systems and compatibility
  • Sophisticated threats that are forever on the rise

Also Read: Importance of Data Protection in Cybersecurity

Steps to Improve Cybersecurity in Aerospace and Aviation

1. Assess the Origin of Threats

Cyber threats can come from a range of sources, from user behavior to design flaws and coding errors. Design flaws, such as inadequate user authentication and coding errors, such as injection vulnerabilities, can create potential points of attack. Due to the complexity of the aerospace and defense procurement process, a vulnerability can arise at any point in the supply chain. A commitment to seeing all sources of software checked for vulnerabilities is necessary:

  • Legacy Code: Legacy code poses cybersecurity risks because it was written before testing for cybersecurity vulnerabilities, and it no longer receives technical support updates.
  • New Development: While new projects are optimal in applying the latest security techniques, budgetary and release pressures generally prevent this.
  • Open Source Software (OSS): OSS is very widely used, but its accessibility allows malicious actors to compromise it.
  • Commercial-Off-the-Shelf (COTS): If not required to meet strict requirements and tested, COTS software could potentially introduce an undiscovered vulnerability.
2. Make Sure Cybersecurity is a Part of Development Strategy

As noted in the SWAP Report, include cybersecurity strategies in development and business objectives by using adaptive processes that address emerging threats and market dynamics. Invest in training and tools that reduce developer effort and lower the probability of producing a vulnerability. Developers must have targeted cybersecurity budgets for training and secure coding practice.

3. Simplify Cybersecurity Testing with Standards

Adopting common guidelines to check code for vulnerabilities is important. Leveraging known aerospace and defense cybersecurity standards leads to:

  • CWE: The Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) Top 25 lists the most critical weaknesses attackers use.
  • DISA STIG: The Defense Information Systems Agency Security Technical Implementation Guide offers security management guidelines.
  • OWASP: The Open Web Application Security Project Top 10 lists the top critical security risks to applications.
  • MISRA and MISRA C:2012: These guidelines assure proper and secure coding practices for C and C++.
4. Reduce the Impact on Development through Automation

This should not add to developers’ workloads. Automation techniques, especially Static Analysis (SA), are keeping pace with evolving threats and codebases. Automating compliance with cybersecurity standards inherently increases accuracy and consistency. For instance, tools such as Klocwork by Perforce analyze source code and identify vulnerabilities and gaps in compliance, thus reducing associated risks for secure release.

5. Secure the Software Supply Chain

Securing the software supply chain is equally vital, as the Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity further underscores. Supply chain attacks will increase, given the rise in the use of diverse technologies and less dependence on large software providers. Potentially risky third parties include suppliers, vendors, open-source projects, and other connected systems. Proving the integrity and security of the software supply chain is important for robust cybersecurity in aerospace and aviation.

Key Principles for Ensuring Cyber and Operational Resilience

Gain Visibility into CPS

Whenever evaluating a Cyber-Physical System (CPS) security solution, one must ensure that visibility is in the solution of the Operational Technology (OT) environment. Visibility is the foundation of cybersecurity, for organizations cannot protect what they cannot see or understand. This is a significant challenge because the protocols are frequently proprietary, and Extended Internet of Things (XIoT) devices are typically incompatible with general security tools.

Aviation environments host a mixture of new and legacy devices that exhibit dissimilar behaviors, making device identification difficult. The uniqueness of each XIoT environment further complicates asset discovery. Therefore, CPS security solutions must provide flexible, multiple discovery methods that are customizable to the specific need.

Integrate Existing IT Tools and Workflows with OT

In most cases, CPS follow the use of proprietary protocols and legacy systems, and as such, they are incompatible with traditional IT solutions. However, organizations should not add to their growing technology stack but instead look for CPS security solutions that integrate existing IT tools and workflows with OT. This unlocks those siloed risk blind spots without risking operations and promotes visibility across siloed teams.

Extend IT Security Controls and Governance to the XIoT Environment

XIoT environment largely misses several common cybersecurity controls and consistent governance. Legacy systems were designed for functionality and reliability and not security since they were not originally connected to the internet. The fusion of these systems into IT networks due to digital transformation and remote work has presented a myriad of security concerns. With no dedicated security teams or solutions with a core focus on OT systems, there is inconsistent governance and control.

Aviation organizations need to consider CPS security vendors that provide visibility into CPS, embed IT tools and workflows, and extend IT controls into the XIoT environment. The consolidation of security governance is critical to the realization of cyber and operational resilience.

Future Trends and Considerations

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) exposures:

The more the aerospace industry extensively uses AI and ML systems, the more primordial it becomes to resolve issues associated with their exposure to cyber-threats. AI and ML systems can be leveraged by attackers to conduct advanced attacks that are challenging to identify and prevent.

IoT Exposures:

Adoption of more IoT devices, such as sensors and telemetry systems, increases the attack surface in the aerospace industry and, therefore, more vulnerabilities to cyber threats. Firms must ensure the protection of such devices from cyber threats.

Quantum Computing Threats:

Sensitive information can face possible threats from quantum computing. The aerospace sector must prepare for potential attacks from quantum computing and, therefore, create strategies that proactively reduce the threat.

Amplified Collaboration and Sharing of Information:

The aerospace industry must collaborate more with other industries, government agencies, and cyber-experts to share the evolving nature of threats more frequently and best practices.

Adoption of Cybersecurity Standards:

The aerospace industry must adopt industry-wide cybersecurity standards to obtain protection against cyber threats. For example, the ICAO must be adopted by the aerospace industry to enhance its operations.

Cybersecurity Talent Development:

Investment in developing human resources specifically for cybersecurity will be important to create talent to meet the rising demand for human resources in cybersecurity in the aerospace industry. A strong workforce will ensure improved resilience of the industry against cyber threats and adversities in the future.

Cybersecurity Solutions Providers for the Aviation Industry

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The aerospace industry faces a range of cyber threats that can cause significant damage to its operations, reputation, and safety. This includes threats to hack into flight control systems, avionics, and satellite communications; steal intellectual property; and interfere with air traffic management systems.

While various measures and initiatives to strengthen the aerospace sector’s cybersecurity have been adopted, this includes the guidance given by regulatory bodies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, implementation of secure software development practices, and training of employees in collaboration with cybersecurity experts and agencies. There is still much to be done to improve the sector’s robustness against cyber attacks.

As the aerospace industry increasingly relies on the latest technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and the Internet of Things (IoT), its vulnerabilities must be addressed with the same commitment. Collaboration and information sharing, adherence to standards, and the nurturing of talent must be primary considerations in future efforts to secure the industry’s cybersecurity.


1.  What does Cyber-Physical Systems mean?

Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS) is the integration of computation, networking, and physical processes. They represent a wide array of applications, ranging from industrial control systems and smart grids to autonomous vehicle systems, medical monitoring, and aerospace systems. In general, with aerospace and aviation, CPS is put into the integration of operational technology with information technology to handle complex, interconnecting systems like aircraft controls, navigation, and communication systems, together with ground support infrastructure.

2. What is the Extended Internet of Things (XIoT)?

The extended internet of things (XIoT) is a superset that includes within it all the internet of things (IoT) or physical devices connected to the internet. It includes, in a broad sense, IoT, operational technology (OT), the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT), industrial IoT (IIoT), and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).

3. How does the use of IoT devices affect aerospace cybersecurity?

IoT devices, like sensors and telemetry systems, increase the attack surface and introduce new vulnerabilities that must be secured.

4. Why is IT and OT security integration important in aviation?

Integrating IT and OT security is crucial because operational technology systems in aviation, such as aircraft control systems, must be protected from cyber threats, just as IT systems are. This integration ensures comprehensive security coverage across all connected systems.

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