If we ask anyone what a hacker is, we could get answers going from cyberpiracy, cyberdelincuency, cybersecurity…and any other cyberthing. However, it’s much more than that.

Hackers are classified depending of the “color of their hats”. White hat hacker means individual devoted to security, black hat hacker means cybercriminal and grey hat hacker means something in the middle. That can be interesting as a matter of curiosity but…what do they have in common? Furthermore, what do they have in common that can be relevant for Air Safety?

Simonyi, the creator of WYSIWYG, warned long ago about an abstraction scale that was adding more and more steps. Speaking about Information Technology, that means that programmers don’t program a machine. They instruct a program to make a program to be run by a machine. Higher programming levels mean longer distance from the real thing and more steps between the human action and the machine action.

Of course, Simonyi warned of this as a potential problem while he was speaking about Information Technology but…Information Technology is now ubiquitous and this problem can be found anywhere including, of course, Aviation.

We could say that any IT-intensive system has different layers and the number of layers defines how advanced the system is. So far so good, if we assume that there is a perfect correspondance between layers, that is, every layer is a symbolic representation of the former one and that representation should be perfect. That should be all…but it isn’t.

Every information layer that we put over the real thing is not a perfect copy -it should be nonsense- but, instead, it tries to improve something in safety, efficiency or, very often, it claims to be improving both. However, avoiding flaws in that process is something that is almost impossible. That is the point where problems start and when hacker-type knowledge and frame of mind should be highly desirable for a pilot.

The symbolic nature of IT-based systems makes its flaws to be hard to diagnose since their behavior can be very different to mechanic or electric systems. Hackers, good or bad, try to identify these flaws, that is, they are very conscious of this symbolic layer approach instead of assuming an enhanced but perfect representation of the reality below.

What means a hacker frame of mind as a way to improve safety? Let me show two examples:

  • From cinema: The movie “A beautiful mind”, devoted to John Nash and showing his mental health problems shows at a moment how and why he was able to control these problems: He was confusing reality and fiction until a moment where he found something that did not fit. It happened to be a little girl that, after many years, continued being a little girl instead of an adult woman. That gave him the clue to know which part of his life was created by his own brain.
  • From Air Safety: A reflection taken from the book “QF32” by Richard de Crespigny: Engine 4 was mounted to our extreme right. The fuselage separated Engine 4 from Engines 1 and 2. So how could shrapnel pass over or under the fuselage, then travel all that way and damage Engine 4? The answer is clear. It can’t. However, once arrived there, a finding appears crystal-clear: Information coming from the plane is not trustable because in any of the IT-layers the correspondance reality-representation has been lost.

Detecting these problems is not easy. It implies much more than operating knowledge and, at the same time, we know that nobody has full knowledge about the whole system but only partial knowledge. That partial knowledge should be enough to define key indicators -as it happens in the mentioned examples- to know when we work with information that should not be trusted.

The hard part of this: The indicators should not be permanent but adapted to every situation, that is, the pilot should decide about which indicator should be used in situations that are not covered by procedures. That should bring us to other issue: If a hacker frame of mind is positive for Air Safety, how to create, nurture and train it? Let’s use again the process followed by a hacker to become such a hacker:

First, hackers look actively for information. They don’t go to formal courses expecting the information to be given. Instead, they look for resources allowing them to increase their knowledge level. Then, applying this model to Aviation should suppose a wide access to information sources beyond the information provided in formal courses.

Second, hackers training is more similar to military training than academic training, that is, they fight to intrude or to defend a system and they show their skills by opposing an active enemy. To replay a model such as this, simulators should include situations that trainers can imagine. Then, the design should be much more flexible and, instead of simulators behaving as a plane is supposed to do, they should have room to include potential situations coming from information misrepresentation or from situations coming from automatic answers to defective sensors.

Asking for a full knowledge of all the information layers and their potential pitfalls can be utopic since nobody has that kind of knowledge, including designers and engineers. Everybody has a partial knowledge. Then, how can we do our best with this partial knowledge? Looking for a different frame of mind in involved people -mainly pilots- and providing the information and training resources that allow that frame of mind to be created and developed. That could mean a fully new training model.

Published originally in my Linkedin profile