Hacking public transportation systems is always depicted on TV and movies.  And they make it seem so easy… it only takes seconds for these fictional experts.  Is it a reality?

Well, the Amtrak train derailment that occurred earlier this year in Philadelphia got me thinking about “hacking” as a possible cause of the accident.  This is only my conjecture at this point, as there has been no indication that it was related to terrorism and all the facts of this unfortunate tragedy are still being collected and determined.  But some data reported from the train’s “black box” and engine cabin camera have been released. 

  • The train was traveling at 106 mph in a 50 mph zone at the time of the crash. 
  • The train was accelerating from 70 mph to 106 mph in the last 60 seconds before the crash.
  • The train engineer applied the emergency brake but it was too late to be effective.

Consider that a wireless signal could be sent by a hacker to a radio-enabled train cabin which locks out manual controls.  The hacker could then take control of the train.   The train continues to accelerate into a curve and derails.  (The operator in this case has claimed not to remember much about the accident due to a concussion during the crash.) 

Of course, if the hacker signals had to be validated in some way before they took effect that would be a mitigation factor for such an attack.  Only the most sophisticated hacker with intimate knowledge of the validation methods would have to chance to cause problems.

So there may be a bad side of wireless, but there is also a good side.

Some have said that if special wireless communications for speed control were enabled, the train speed would have been detected, and a signal could have been sent to slow it down, either to the operator or to the train control itself.  A speed detection system may have alerted someone in the train control center and they could have sent an override command to slow the train down.

There are many opinions about wireless use in the automation industry, especially for functional safety systems.  Using wireless communications with equipment in hazardous areas, or areas that are difficult to access could help prevent injuries to workers who might otherwise have to climb ladders or don special clothing to get information.  And, yes, it is possible that a hacker might send signals that would disrupt or shutdown the process.  There are risks to address. But with proper safeguards in place, it is something that should make process control easier and even safer.

Tagged as:     John Yozallinas     Cybersecurity  

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