Eagles Work With Aviation Industry to Make Baggage Tags, Other Passenger Systems More Secure

Airline working adding a tag to a luggage handle
Baggage tags will become more advanced and digital, a positive development that nonetheless requires cybersecurity measures (Photo: Getty Images)

In collaboration with the aviation industry, students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are studying ways to protect airline travelers’ data, as well as the airlines’ baggage, ticketing, passenger entertainment and other systems — even as those systems become more advanced and digitally managed.

“This project is important because it focuses on enhancing the security of wireless technologies in the aviation sector. It aims to safeguard data integrity, availability and confidentiality,” said Computer Science senior Caroline Terre. “It is crucial for preventing unauthorized access and ensuring the safety and privacy of wireless communications systems used in airports and onboard aircraft, including those for passenger entertainment and baggage tracking.”

Security concerns surrounding such things as baggage tags and boarding passes are not new. The barcodes used on such documents can be read using easily obtained apps, potentially granting access to a passenger’s personal information, flight plans and frequent flyer account. As these systems become more digitally automated, in order to reduce baggage mix-ups and misplacement, developers are looking to incorporate more security and effective encryption into their designs.

“Can the electronic version of a baggage tag secure personal data? Yes. Can the electronic version be faked? Also, yes,” said Max Werner, a senior in Cyber Intelligence and Security. “But I think at the end of the day, electronic will be better due to more accountability of things — which bag is where, etc., and being able to build in more security.”

The evolution of baggage tags to become more digital is partly in response to a directive by the International Air Transport Association mandating that airlines track each piece of luggage end-to-end, from check-in to arrival at the baggage carousel, said Dr. Krishna Sampigethaya, associate professor and Cyber Intelligence and Security Department chair.

Because of this digitalization, baggage tags and their systems could become more vulnerable “to unauthorized access and malicious tampering,” he said. “Our project focuses on security considerations for these new electronic baggage systems, identifying assets that require confidentiality, integrity and availability protections, recognizing their data flows, assessing vulnerabilities, evaluating threat scenarios and exploring mitigations for concerning risks.”

Dr. M. Ilhan Akbas, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, emphasized the value of the research to students and the aviation industry.

“This project provides students with critical skills and prepares them for a future high-demand sector. The Internet of Things (IoT) is revolutionizing the aviation industry by bringing about a wave of interconnected devices, sensors and data analysis that enhance various aspects of flight operations, maintenance and passenger experience,” Akbas said. “Understanding the risks of IoT and helping IoT integrate with legacy systems will be critical for the industry. While IoT offers a multitude of benefits, it also introduces new attack surfaces that malicious actors can exploit. Projects like this one will help in understanding these risks while building the future workforce.”

The research is being done in the form of two capstone projects: one at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach Campus and one at the Prescott Campus. The projects are being funded by The Boeing Company.

Jonah Rowell, a senior in Computer Engineering, said he got involved in the project because of an ongoing interest in cybersecurity.

“I thought it would be fun to gain some hands-on experience with real cybersecurity tools and work with professionals from Boeing,” he said.

The students are being mentored by two Embry-Riddle alumni, Brian Jaury (’19) and Brandon Nepute (’21), both of whom are employed in the commercial aviation division of Boeing.

Sampigethaya described the value of the project as a timely collaboration with the aviation industry for students who will soon be looking for jobs.

“Students get to work on an industry-sponsored, interdisciplinary project that bridges cybersecurity with emerging aviation systems,” he said.

Posted In: Computers and Technology | Security Intelligence and Safety