Today the FBI arrested Phor Tran, 19, a Cambodian-American computer science student at Boston University, for his involvement in a recent incident involving a Pan Am flight from Boston to Los Angeles that was diverted to New York because of multiple disturbances on the plane. Tran was charged with interfering with a flight crew and unauthorized access to an information system.
An FBI spokesman said that Tran was accused of instigating the multiple confrontations between passengers and flight attendants. A security manager at Pan Am reported that Tran had hacked the inflight entertainment system and reprogramed the flight map to show the plane turning south shortly after crossing the Hudson River, a flight path very similar to that taken by American Airlines flight 11 on September 11th, 2011.
A flight attendant on the diverted Pan Am flight reported that at least four different passengers were watching the flight map when the southerly turn was displayed. Those four passengers, in separate sections of the plane, began to complain to the flight attendants about the change in direction when one noticed the similarity to the 9/11 attack flight path. A number of fights then broke out and an off-duty police officer was injured when he tried to stop another passenger from charging the cockpit. As a result, the flight was diverted to JFK Airport and seventeen passengers were detained.
The US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York explained that when the government’s investigation showed that someone had apparently hacked the aircraft they reduced or dropped the charges against the other passengers and started an investigation to find the hacker. An investigator for the US Attorney’s Office said that the investigation had gotten nowhere since there was no logging of access to the entertainment system. The investigators had gotten a break in their case when a friend of Tran, BF Evers, was overheard talking about the hack at a coffee house near Boston University.
Further investigation provided links to Tran and the FBI obtained a warrant to search his apartment. His lap top computer was seized and was found to contain exploit code to gain access to the in-flight entertainment system. The FBI also found a USB drive that contained a copy of the flight map that caused the inflight problems on Pan Am flight 112.
The US Attorney’s Office reports that Tran could face a civil fine for the charge of interfering with a flight crew. The unauthorized access to a computer system could bring a federal prison sentence of up to ten years. Tran’s trial is expected to start next year. Tran has been released on bail.