At least eight airlines, including Southwest, use e-ticketing systems that could allow hackers to access sensitive information about travelers merely by intercepting emails, according to research published Wednesday by the mobile security company Wandera.
The systems fail to secure customers’ personally identifiable information, including names, boarding passes, passport numbers and flight numbers, Wandera said.
The email vulnerabilities still exist, Wandera found, even though researchers notified affected companies weeks ago, and despite growing corporate awareness about the risks associated with sacrificing security for convenience.
The weakness is a check-in link that is emailed to customers, Wandera researchers found. Customer information is embedded in the links, allowing travelers to travel from their email to a website where they check in for a flight without needing to enter their username and password. However the links are unencrypted and re-usable, presenting a tempting target for hackers, according to Michael Covington, vice president of product at Wandera.
“The airlines, in an effort to make it easy for their passengers to check in, have taken shortcuts that have led to the potential exposure of personal information,” he said.
Affected airlines include Southwest, Air France, KLM, Vueling, Jetstar, Thomas Cook, Transavia and Air Europa, Wandera found. Wandera has reported the vulnerability to each company and received responses, though none appear to have fixed the vulnerability, Covington said.
The airlines appear to be using unique servers for automated marketing that fail to protect user information.
“It’s not just the personal information they could get into, but the e-ticketing systems are basically allowing people in without authentication, which would allow you to change details about people like seat assignments and bags checked,” Covington said. “In some cases you can change existing bookings.”
There is no evidence outsiders have exploited the vulnerabilities.
Southwest Airlines is perhaps the best known low-cost airline operating in the U.S., with a 5 percent capacity growth planned for 2019, according to industry analysts at the Center for Aviation. Air France and KLM, which merged under a single holding company in 2004, jointly form one of the world’s largest airlines. Other companies named in the report — Vueling, Transavia and Air — are based in Europe. Thomas Cook is a British charter airline and Jetstar is a low-cost airline in Australia.
CyberScoop sought comment from each of the airlines named in this report. Several acknowledged receiving a request for comment. All except three failed to provide a statement or answer questions by press time.
In a statement, a Thomas Cook spokeswoman said, “We take the security of our customers’ data very seriously and have investigated this matter as a priority. We have looked into the questions raised and have taken immediate action to further increase the security of our customer data.” A Southwest spokesman said, “While we don’t have a comment on this specific issue, the safety and protection of our customers and their data privacy is our highest priority.”
A spokesperson for JetStar said the company takes data security and privacy “extremely seriously” and that the airline has “multiple layers of security in place.”
Air travelers anxious for a web connection in an airport, hotel or elsewhere on their journey are especially at risk because they could be more likely to connect to public WiFi, ignoring security precautions, Covington said.
“If you’re on a Wi-Fi network or a physical network that uses encryption, this would not be a problem,” he said.
“I can’t speak for the airlines individually,” he said. “We’re not a vulnerability testing company, and it’s not our business to go out and find this. But I can tell you the airlines we’ve engaged with have been keen to listen and are open to hearing more.”
UPDATE, 02/07/19, 11:01 a.m. EDT: In a statement sent to CyberScoop following this article’s publication, Air France-KLM said there has been no hacking of airline group databases as a result of this vulnerability. The company also said “customer profile information” including bank details is fully protected. “IT teams are working to further enhance security on the link sent to customers as part of the check-in process,” the company said. “This update will be effective very soon.”