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iPhone App Raises Aircraft Terrorism Concerns

Plane finder

October 7, 2010 — Last week in the AeroInnovations section of e-Hotline, we told you about an iPhone application that allows the user to point its camera at a plane in the sky and download flight tracking information about it. Plane Finder AR, developed by British-based Pinkfroot, uses signals from ADS-B equipment on aircraft and the phone’s GPS receiver to identify planes in the sky. Now a British security expert is warning that the iPhone could be used by terrorists to shoot down airliners. EAA Sport Aviation technology columnist Max Trescott says the fears are overblown.

According to CNN, Pinkfroot has set up a network of ADS-B receivers, hosted by aviation enthusiasts across Britain, to receive the signals from airliners and send them to a central server for distribution to iPhones operating the app. That information, paired with the iPhone’s GPS and tilt-sensing technology, supposedly helps the app determine which aircraft the phone is pointed at (if the aircraft is on an instrument flight plan and equipped with ADS-B).

The abilities of Plane Finder AR has raised the concern of British Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, former chairman of the Parliamentary Counter Terrorism sub-committee. “Anything that makes it easier for our enemies to find targets is madness. The government must look at outlawing the marketing of such equipment.” he told The Mail Online.

EAA Sport Aviation technology columnist Max Trescott says someone looking to attack an aircraft doesn’t need an ADS-B receiver or the iPhone app. “Aircraft arrival and departure paths are highly predictable, including their altitude - I don’t think (ADS-B) gives a terrorist with a Stinger missile much more capability than what already exists today without ADS-B.”

Trescott says that, at the time of the ADS-B Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the FAA received comments that raised concerns similar to that of MP Mercer: that unprotected ADS-B signals could be used by terrorists. While their reasoning is not clear, the FAA, in issuing the final rule, did not add any encryption requirement for aircraft ADS-B signals. Pinkfroot, while developing the app, was also concerned about unprotected signals and has added a 30-second delay to information sent to users. This is in addition to the natural latency of data flow through the internet.

Airlines around the world have begun to equip their aircraft with ADS-B, and Europe has far more integration of the technology than in the United States. In the general aviation fleet, ADS-B technology has even less integration. Pinkfroot has only a few receiver networks (New York, Florida, and Oregon) for U.S. app users, but that hasn’t stopped people from purchasing the app in anticipation of the service expanding. Still, it will take wider use of ADS-B by aircraft before a user’s iPhone will have more information about a plane in the sky than the naked eye.

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