Aviation Cybersecurity: FAA Should Fully Implement Key Practices to Strengthen Its Oversight of Avionics Risks

What GAO Found

Modern airplanes are equipped with networks and systems that share data with the pilots, passengers, maintenance crews, other aircraft, and air-traffic controllers in ways that were not previously feasible (see fig. 1). As a result, if avionics systems are not properly protected, they could be at risk of a variety of potential cyberattacks. Vulnerabilities could occur due to (1) not applying modifications (patches) to commercial software, (2) insecure supply chains, (3) malicious software uploads, (4) outdated systems on legacy airplanes, and (5) flight data spoofing. To date, extensive cybersecurity controls have been implemented and there have not been any reports of successful cyberattacks on an airplane’s avionics systems. However, the increasing connections between airplanes and other systems, combined with the evolving cyber threat landscape, could lead to increasing risks for future flight safety.

Figure 1: Key Systems Connections to Commercial Airplanes

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has established a process for the certification and oversight of all US commercial airplanes, including the operation of commercial air carriers (see fig. 2). While FAA recognizes avionics cybersecurity as a potential safety issue for modern commercial airplanes, it has not fully implemented key practices that are necessary to carry out a risk-based cybersecurity oversight program.

Specifically, FAA has not (1) assessed its oversight program to determine the priority of avionics cybersecurity risks, (2) developed an avionics cybersecurity training program, (3) issued guidance for independent cybersecurity testing, or (4) included periodic testing as part of its monitoring process. Until FAA strengthens its oversight program, based on assessed risks, it may not be able to ensure it is providing sufficient oversight to guard against evolving cybersecurity risks facing avionics systems in commercial airplanes.

Figure 2: Federal Aviation Administration’s Certification Process for Commercial Transport Airplanes

\vdifs02FR_DataTorabiTDesktophighlight cert.jpg

GAO has previously identified key practices for interagency collaboration that can be used to assess interagency coordination. FAA coordinates with other federal agencies, such as the Departments of Defense (DOD) and Homeland Security (DHS), and with industry to address aviation cybersecurity issues. For example, FAA co-chairs the Aviation Cyber Initiative, a tri-agency forum with DOD and DHS to address cyber risks across the aviation ecosystem. However, FAA’s internal coordination activities do not fully reflect GAO’s key collaboration practices. FAA has not established a tracking mechanism for monitoring progress on cybersecurity issues that are raised in coordination meetings, and its oversight coordination activities are not supported by dedicated resources within the agency’s budget. Until FAA establishes a tracking mechanism for cybersecurity issues, it may be unable to ensure that all issues are appropriately addressed and resolved. Further, until it conducts an avionics cybersecurity risk assessment, it will not be able to effectively prioritize and dedicate resources to ensure that avionics cybersecurity risks are addressed in its oversight program.

Why GAO Did This Study

Avionics systems, which provide weather information, positioning data, and communications, are critical to the safe operation of an airplane. FAA is responsible for overseeing the safety of commercial aviation, including avionics systems. The growing connectivity between airplanes and these systems may present increasing opportunities for cyberattacks on commercial airplanes.

GAO was asked to review the FAA’s oversight of avionics cybersecurity issues. The objectives of this review were to (1) describe key cybersecurity risks to avionics systems and their potential effects, (2) determine the extent to which FAA oversees the implementation of cybersecurity controls that address identified risks in avionics systems, and (3) assess the extent to which FAA coordinates internally and with other government and industry entities to identify and address cybersecurity risks to avionics systems.

To do so, GAO reviewed information on key cybersecurity risks to avionics systems, as reported by major industry representatives as well as key elements of an effective oversight program, and compared FAA’s process for overseeing the implementation of cybersecurity controls in avionics systems with these program elements. GAO also reviewed agency documentation and interviewed agency and industry representatives to assess FAA’s coordination efforts to address the identified risks.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making six recommendations to FAA to strengthen its avionics cybersecurity oversight program:

  • GAO recommends that FAA conduct a cybersecurity risk assessment of avionics systems cybersecurity within its oversight program to identify the relative priority of avionics cybersecurity risks compared to other safety concerns and develop a plan to address those risks.

Based on the assessment of avionics cybersecurity risks, GAO recommends that FAA

identify staffing and training needs for agency inspectors specific to avionics cybersecurity, and develop and implement appropriate training to address identified needs.

develop and implement guidance for avionics cybersecurity testing of new airplane designs that includes independent testing.

review and consider revising its policies and procedures for monitoring the effectiveness of avionics cybersecurity controls in the deployed fleet to include developing procedures for safely conducting independent testing.

ensure that avionics cybersecurity issues are appropriately tracked and resolved when coordinating among internal stakeholders.

review and consider the extent to which oversight resources should be committed to avionics cybersecurity.

FAA concurred with five out of six GAO recommendations. FAA did not concur with the recommendation to consider revising its policies and procedures for periodic independent testing. GAO clarified this recommendation to emphasize that FAA safely conduct such testing as part of its ongoing monitoring of airplane safety.

For more information, contact Nick Marinos at (202) 512-9342 or MarinosN@gao.gov, or Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or KrauseH@gao.gov.

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    What GAO Found The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has taken steps to increase the consistency of their determinations about where wetlands exist on farmers' lands. For example, NRCS state offices formed teams to make such determinations in the prairie pothole region (see fig.), which covers parts of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These offices also standardized their wetland determination procedures and included more details, such as the types of data that can be used to identify wetland boundaries. Under wetland conservation provisions in federal law, to receive the benefits of certain USDA farm programs, farmers must not convert wetlands to cropland. Wetlands and Cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region NRCS's primary method to ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions is conducting annual compliance checks of selected tracts of land for farmers in USDA programs. To select tracts, NRCS draws a national random sample. The sample is to include about 1 percent of tracts subject to wetland the provisions nationally, so many tracts are not sampled for years. For 2014 through 2018, NRCS identified fewer than five farmers with wetland conservation violations per year on the approximately 417,000 tracts in North Dakota and South Dakota—the states with the most wetland acres. Agency officials said NRCS has limited resources to conduct more checks. However, some USDA agencies emphasize risk-based criteria, rather than a random sample, in selecting tracts to check for compliance with other provisions. Doing so makes the checks more efficient by targeting the tracts most likely to have violations. If NRCS used a risk-based approach for its compliance checks (e.g., using information on acres cultivated annually on tracts), it could more efficiently ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions. If NRCS finds violations, USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) may withhold program benefits from farmers, or it may grant waivers to farmers who acted in good faith, without intent to commit violations. FSA granted 243 of 301 requests for good-faith waivers from 2010 to 2018, according to FSA data. FSA relies on committees of fellow farmers to decide on waivers by considering factors such as prior violations. GAO found that some committees relied on weak justification to grant waivers even if farmers had prior violations and that FSA had not specified what is adequate justification. By specifying what constitutes adequate justification, FSA could better ensure it provides benefits only to eligible farmers. Why GAO Did This Study Wetlands perform vital ecological functions, and draining them can harm water quality and wildlife habitat. Many wetlands were drained for farming before enactment of wetland conservation provisions in 1985. However, millions of acres of wetlands, known as potholes, remain in the prairie pothole region. NRCS determines where wetlands exist on the land of farmers who participate in USDA farm programs, and it identifies violations of wetland provisions. FSA administers farm program benefits. In 2017, USDA's Office of Inspector General reported that NRCS had implemented wetland determination procedures in the prairie pothole region inconsistently. GAO was asked to review USDA's implementation of wetland conservation provisions in the prairie pothole region. This report examines, among other objectives, the steps NRCS has taken to increase the consistency of wetland determinations and the approaches NRCS and FSA use to ensure compliance with the provisions. GAO reviewed agency manuals, data, and files on wetland determinations and waivers, and interviewed agency officials and stakeholder groups.
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  • F-35 Sustainment: Enhanced Attention to and Oversight of F-35 Affordability Are Needed
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found F-35 mission capable rates—a measure of the readiness of an aircraft fleet—have recently improved, but still fall short of warfighter requirements, as discussed in our draft report. Specifically, from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2020, the U.S. F-35 fleet's average annual (1) mission capable rate—the percentage of time during which the aircraft can fly and perform one of its tasked missions—improved from 59 to 69 percent; and (2) full mission capable rate—the percentage of time during which the aircraft can perform all of its tasked missions—improved from 32 to 39 percent. Both metrics fall below the services' objectives. For example, in fiscal year 2020 the Air Force F-35A full mission capable rate was 54 percent, versus a 72 percent objective. Since 2012, F-35 estimated sustainment costs over its 66-year life cycle have increased steadily, from $1.11 trillion to $1.27 trillion, despite efforts to reduce costs. The services face a substantial and growing gap between estimated sustainment costs and affordability constraints—i.e., costs per tail (aircraft) per year that the services project they can afford—totaling about $6 billion in 2036 alone (see fig.). The services will collectively be confronted with tens of billions of dollars in sustainment costs that they project as unaffordable during the program. Gap between F-35 Affordability Constraints and Estimated Sustainment Costs in 2036 Note: Costs are in constant year 2012 dollars as that was the year when the F-35 program was most recently re-baselined. aSteady state years for the F-35 program are defined in each respective service's affordability analysis as: US Air Force/F-35A – 2036-2041; US Marine Corps/F-35B – 2033-2037; US Navy/F-35C – 2036-2043. Steady state refers to the program's peak operating point. The Air Force needs to reduce estimated costs per tail per year by $3.7 million (or 47 percent) by 2036 or it will incur $4.4 billion in costs beyond what it currently projects it could afford in that year alone. Cost reductions become increasingly difficult as the program grows and matures. However, GAO found there is no agreed upon approach to achieve the constraints. Without an assessment of cost-reduction efforts and program requirements (such as number of planned aircraft), along with a plan, the Department of Defense (DOD) may continue to invest resources in a program it ultimately cannot afford. Congress requiring DOD to report on its progress in achieving affordability constraints and making F-35 procurements contingent on DOD's demonstrated progress would enhance DOD's accountability for taking the necessary and appropriate actions to afford sustaining the F-35 fleet. Why GAO Did This Study The F-35 aircraft with its advanced capabilities represents a growing portion of DOD's tactical aviation fleet—with the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy currently flying about 400 of the aircraft. It is also DOD's most ambitious and costly weapon system in history, with estimated life-of-program costs exceeding $1.7 trillion. DOD plans to procure nearly 2,500 F-35s at an estimated total acquisition cost of just under $400 billion. The remaining $1.3 trillion in life cycle costs is associated with operating and sustaining the aircraft. This statement, among other things, assesses the extent to which (1) the F-35 has met warfighter-required mission capable rates; and (2) DOD has reduced the F-35's estimated life cycle sustainment costs and made progress in meeting its affordability constraints. This statement is largely based on GAO's draft report, which was provided to DOD in March for review and comment. For that report and this statement, GAO reviewed program documentation, analyzed performance and cost data, collected data from F-35 locations, and interviewed officials.
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  • Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Announces Investigation of the City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the Minneapolis Police Department
    In Crime News
    Attorney General Merrick B. Garland announced today the Justice Department has opened a pattern or practice investigation into the City of Minneapolis (the City) and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). The investigation will assess all types of force used by MPD officers, including uses of force involving individuals with behavioral health disabilities and uses of force against individuals engaged in activities protected by the First Amendment. The investigation will also assess whether MPD engages in discriminatory policing. As part of the investigation the Justice Department will conduct a comprehensive review of MPD policies, training and supervision. The department will also examine MPD’s systems of accountability, including complaint intake, investigation, review, disposition and discipline. The Department of Justice will also reach out to community groups and members of the public to learn about their experiences with MPD. “The investigation I am announcing today will assess whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force, including during protests,” said Attorney General Garland. “Building trust between community and law enforcement will take time and effort by all of us, but we undertake this task with determination and urgency, knowing that change cannot wait.” This morning, Department of Justice officials informed Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, MPD Chief Medaria Arradondo, City Attorney Jim Rowader, City Coordinator Mark Ruff, and City Council President Lisa Bender of the investigation. The department will continue to work closely with both the City and MPD as the investigation progresses. “One of the Civil Rights Division’s highest priorities is to ensure that every person in this country benefits from public safety systems that are lawful, responsive, transparent and nondiscriminatory,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pamela S. Karlan for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. “It is essential that police departments across the country use their law enforcement authority, including the authority to use force, in a manner that respects civil rights and the sanctity of human life.” “People throughout the city of Minneapolis want a public safety system that protects and serves all members of our community,” said Acting U.S. Attorney W. Anders Folk for the District of Minnesota. “This investigation by the Department of Justice provides a vital step to restore and build trust in the Minneapolis Police Department and its officers.” The investigation is being conducted pursuant to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which prohibits state and local governments from engaging in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives individuals of rights protected by the Constitution or federal law. The Act allows the Department of Justice to remedy such misconduct through civil litigation. The department will be assessing law enforcement practices under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as under the Safe Streets Act of 1968, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Special Litigation Section of the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, are jointly conducting this investigation. Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the Department of Justice via email at Community.Minneapolis@usdoj.gov or by phone at 866-432-0268. Individuals can also report civil rights violations regarding this or other matters using the Civil Rights Division’s new reporting portal, available at civilrights.justice.gov. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt. Additional information about the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota is available on its website at https://www.justice.gov/usao-mn.
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  • Tax Preparer Pleads Guilty to Conspiring to Defraud the IRS
    In Crime News
    A Maryland tax return preparer pleaded guilty today to conspiracy to defraud the United States and aiding in the preparation of a false tax return. According to court documents and statements made in court, Anita Fortune, 56, of Upper Marlboro, provided return preparation services under multiple business names, including Tax Terminatorz Inc. Fortune prepared and filed returns using co-conspirators’ electronic filing identification numbers and identifiers, which they provided in exchange for fees and office space. For the tax years 2011 to 2018, Fortune and her associates fraudulently reduced their clients’ tax liabilities and increased their refunds by adding fictitious or inflated itemized deductions and business losses to the clients’ returns. In total, Fortune caused a tax loss to the IRS of $189,748.
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  • Attorney General William P. Barr Honors Department of Justice Employees and Others for the 68th Annual Attorney General’s Awards
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  • New Jersey Man Admits Conspiring with White Supremacists to Vandalize Synagogues Across the Country
    In Crime News
    A New Jersey man pleaded guilty today to his role in conspiring with members of a white supremacist hate group to threaten and intimidate African Americans and Jewish Americans by vandalizing minority-owned properties throughout the country in September 2019.
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  • JPMorgan Chase & Co. Agrees To Pay $920 Million in Connection with Schemes to Defraud Precious Metals and U.S. Treasuries Markets
    In Crime News
    JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPMorgan), a New York, New York-based global banking and financial services firm, has entered into a resolution with the Department of Justice to resolve criminal charges related to two distinct schemes to defraud: the first involving tens of thousands of episodes of unlawful trading in the markets for precious metals futures contracts, and the second involving thousands of episodes of unlawful trading in the markets for U.S. Treasury futures contracts and in the secondary (cash) market for U.S. Treasury notes and bonds.
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  • Public Designation of Five Bulgarian Public Officials Due to Involvement in Significant Corruption
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  • Justice Department Settles with Georgia-Based Staffing Company to Resolve Immigration-Related Discrimination Claims
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    The Department of Justice announced today that it reached a settlement with Pyramid Consulting, Inc., an IT staffing company based in Georgia.
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  • Five Alleged MS-13 Members Charged Federally for Their Participation in a Violent Racketeering Conspiracy Including Eight Murders and Four Attempted Murders
    In Crime News
    A federal grand jury returned an eleventh superseding indictment Monday, charging five men in connection with a conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise known as La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. The eleventh superseding indictment adds a new defendant charged with a racketeering conspiracy related to his membership in MS-13, including a double homicide and drug trafficking.
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  • Arrests Made in Conspiracy to Illegally Manufacture Firearms
    In Crime News
    On Oct. 20, 2020, a former United States Marine Lance Corporal, recently stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and two co-defendants were arrested in Boise, Idaho on the federal charge of conspiracy to unlawfully manufacture, possess, and distribute various weapons, ammunition, and suppressors.  Liam Montgomery Collins, 21, and Paul James Kryscuk, 35, recently of Boise, were charged via an indictment, while Jordan Duncan, 25, a North Carolina native also currently residing in Boise, was charged via a complaint, both obtained in the Eastern District of North Carolina.
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  • Justice Department Applauds the Passage and Enactment of the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act of 2020
    In Crime News
    On Jan. 5, 2021, President Donald J. Trump signed H.R. 8354, the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative Act of 2020, a bill to permanently establish the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative, or “SVI”, within the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
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