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Failure of controls...Spanair crash caused by a Trojan

Published: 2010-08-22
Last Updated: 2010-08-22 01:01:41 UTC
by Rick Wanner (Version: 1)
10 comment(s)

Several readers have pointed us to an article about the preliminary report of the Spanair flight that crashed on takeoff in 2008 killing 154. The article suggests that a Trojan infected a Spanair computer and this prevented the detection of a number of technical issues with the airplane. The article speculates that if these issues had been detected the plane would not have been permitted to attempt take off.

There is still a lot that is conjecture and unknowns at this point in the investigation and I will try not to add to the speculation, but it made me think about the parallels to information security.
In information security we often speak of controls. There are three types of controls; preventive, detective, and corrective. Predominantly in information security we deal with preventive and detective controls.

Preventive Controls aim at preventing issues before they occur. Some examples of preventive controls are policies, standards of operation, procedures, checklists, segregation of duties and change controls. From an IT technology point of view firewalls and intrusion prevention systems are popular technological preventive controls. The airline industry also has procedural and technological controls. Airlines have operating protocols covering most aspects of operations from when it is safe to fly to how to maintain the equipment. Pilots have pre-flight and in-flight checklists to ensure safe operation of the aircraft. Modern airliners have similar interlocks and safety systems to attempt to protect the aircraft from mechanical failure or human error.

Detective controls aim to detect an issue when it does occur, or as soon as possible after. In the words of Dr. Eric Cole, a notable SANS instructor, “Prevention is ideal, but detection is a must!” If at all possible we would like to prevent the event from occurring, but if we can’t prevent the event we want to know it happened so we can adequately respond. The obvious IT detective controls are host and network based intrusion detection systems (IDS). But less technological processes such as audits are also a detective control aimed to detect and correct anomalies before they become more serious. Modern airliners also have detective systems to detect events before they are service affecting. One quote from the article, indicates a failure in a detective control occurred ... “The plane took off with flaps and slats retracted, something that should in any case have ... triggered an internal warning on the plane.”

I am not a pilot, so I cannot speak with authority on how to fly a passenger airliner, but it seems clear to me that this accident was caused by the failure of a number of controls leading to a disastrous outcome. Clearly the SpanAir diagnostic system (a detective control) designed to detect anomalies in the airliners system failed, possibly due to a Trojan. Also it appears the pilots bypassed part of their pre-takeoff checklist, leaving the flaps and slats in a position not recommended for takeoff. As ISC reader Frank pointed out that is most likely because the pilots had aborted the initial attempt to takeoff and most likely resumed the pre-takeoff checklist (a preventive control) too low in the checklist and missed a significant step. It is also clear that for some reason an internal system (a detective control) that should have detected the misconfigured flaps and slats for some reason did not alert the pilots to this condition.

In information security, the stakes are rarely so high as human lives, but failures in controls often lead to unexpected consequences. A misconfigured firewall rule allowing more permissive access to systems, a false negative in an IDS/IPS system, a user violating policy by plugging in a personal USB stick etc. The moral of the story is don’t take your control systems and processes for granted. Audit and test them regularly to ensure they are operating correctly.


-- Rick Wanner - rwanner at isc dot sans dot org -

Keywords: controls crash Trojan
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