Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing on March 8, 2014, en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board. It is still a mystery what exactly happened to the plane but a shock theory was explored in 2019 Channel 5 documentary ‘Flight MH370’. The theory centres around the idea that a hijacker could have carried out a cyber-attack on the plane, accessing the aircraft’s network via a mobile phone or USB connection to the in-flight entertainment system.
Risk management consultant Dr Sally Leivesley suggested that the hypothetical hijacker could then have compromised the plane’s network with “malware” that creates phantom cockpit controls, tricking the pilots into thinking they were flying the right way, but actually taking them way off course.
She said: “The core of this theory was that the plane was being managed by machines, not people.
“You can have chips in the avionics that run the cockpit and those chips can have malware.
“The controls look right, but underneath there is another system actually running the plane.”
MH370 could have been hijacked via the flight entertainment system
Risk management consultant Dr Sally Leivesley
In this way, Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah and co-pilot Fariq Abdul Hamid may not have realised anything was wrong until it was too late.
Aviation security expert Jim Termini said it is “highly likely” the plane was hijacked, but there are a number of ways it could have happened.
The four options he considered were: a crew member, a passenger, a stowaway and an electronic takeover from a ground-based station.
He added that while is “seems unlikely” that cyber-terrorism was involved, it is entirely possible.
Aviation security expert Jim Termini
He told Channel 5: “A cyber-attack would be a highly sophisticated attack which, at the moment, would seem the most unlikely, but that’s only because we haven’t seen it before.
“The day before 9/11 we would never have imagined that an aircraft would have been used, effectively, as a cruise missile to attack New York and Washington – but, of course, that happened.”
Dr Leivesley pointed out that there was missing documentation for who had access to MH370 in the hours before take-off.
She suggested that it might have been possible for someone to sneak onto the plane while it was stationary at Kuala Lumpur Airport to launch a cyber-attack.
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The risk management expert said: “We know from the Malaysian government reports that there was a maintenance activity in February, but in the immediate period before the plane took off we don’t have that history.
“We need to know who had access to the plane.
“Was there an opportunity for someone to get on with a USB stick – or in other ways – to initiate a cyber-attack on the plane so it would never reach its destination?”
To some, this is an outlandish and unlikely suggestion, but in the absence of proof for any one theory, experts are having to consider all manner of possibilities.
If this theory is correct, then it has serious implications for aviation safety and, if confirmed, could lead to tighter security or better kept documentation.
However, this theory also has implications for the evidence gathered in the MH370 investigation.
For example, if the malware sent off inaccurate data, for example, this could mean that the ‘handshakes’ between MH370 and Inmarsat’s satellite 3F1 – which are the basis for the official investigations’ narrative – may be false.
The seven pingrings suggest that the aircraft flew out per the Indian Ocean, but this could have been fake data.
Aviation expert Jeff Wise
Science journalist and aviation expert Jeff Wise described this as a “false trail of breadcrumbs” left for investigators.
He suggested it is possible that, instead of flying over the Indian Ocean, the plane could have flown north and ended up in Kazakhstan.
However, there are dozens of theories as to what could have happened to MH370.
Families and loved ones of those on the plane are still fighting for answers five years after the tragedy.