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FAA orders Boeing to protect 737s from computer hackers

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has ordered Boeing to modify technology found aboard 737 aircrafts that could be vulnerable to computer hackers. The FAA’s order, which was released in the Federal Register, is effective immediately, although the agency is allowing a comment period until July 21.

The order is issued for Boeing Models 737-700, -700C, -800, -900ER, -7, -8, and -9 series airplanes. These models have a unique digital system composed of several connected networks. The network configuration on these models allows increased connectivity with external networks, such as passenger entertainment and information services, which create possible vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers, according to the FAA. The network on these models also may be used for flight safety related control and navigation systems and operation support.

Jeffrey Duven, manager of FAA’s certification services, released the order calling for Boeing to "ensure that the airplanes' electronic systems are protected from access by unauthorized sources external to the plane, including those possibly caused by maintenance activity."

The current applicable airworthiness regulations do not contain adequate or appropriate safety standards for the digital system design feature. The special conditions ordered to Boeing contain the additional safety standards that the FAA considers necessary to establish a level of safety equivalent to that established by the existing airworthiness standards.

On January 27, 2012, Boeing had applied for an amendment to Type Certificate No.A16WE to include new models in the 737 series. Upon review of the amendment, the FAA was promoted to release the order for the modification to be made to the digital systems. According to the amendment, the newer 737 series models would be designed to reduce fuel burn and community noise.

The 737 aircraft models, Boeing’s best-selling jet airliner, are operated by more than 500 airlines. According to Boeing, more than 10,000 orders of the 737 series have been ordered since the program began in 1967. The 737 represents more than 25% of the worldwide fleet of large commercial jet airliners.

Doug Alder, a Boeing spokesman, said the special conditions laid out in the FAA order are not unusual and help to institutionalize actions already planned by the manufacturer.

"They are a normal part of the process for introducing new technology or design features not previously addressed by regulation," Alder said. "Special conditions are one way regulators and manufacturers work together to ensure that commercial airplanes are safe and secure."