In aviation’s digital ecosystem, who can you trust?

Michael Goodfellow, Saulo Da Silva and Anton Kornetskiy

The entire civil aviation system runs on trust, a responsibility that is at the core of everything ICAO does. Passengers expect to fly safely, operators have to trust that safety systems will meet their needs, and States place trust in ICAO to provide a forum for harmonized global standards that enable a safe, secure and efficient civil aviation system. This trust depends on the safe and reliable flow of information between all these parties, an effort that the internet has revolutionized through its management of information on a global scale.

Some of the new and emerging entrants to the aviation system like drones, air taxis, and commercial space operations were “born digital” and rely on the internet for their basic operations. As aviation increases its use and takes more advantage of the internet’s power and reach, some of its limitations make aviation-centric information exchange extremely challenging. This, combined with the rapid, tech-focused pace of the new entrants clashing with legacy aviation’s slow and methodical approach, is why ICAO is developing an International Aviation Trust Framework (IATF).

Historically, aviation has used meticulously designed, purpose-built systems to exchange information between parties. In the early days, this was necessary simply because a global communications infrastructure did not exist. The advantages were that these custom systems met all of aviation’s unique safety and operational needs and ultimately resulted in a seamless sky where anyone could fly anywhere. Aviation information needs to flow safely between parties and needs to be accurate and unaltered. But the internet was never designed with these requirements in mind. It only ensures that information can flow between any two points across any path, but offers no guarantees on the reliability of those paths or that the information can’t be modified while in transit. Solutions to these problems exist, but they are not aviation specific, and without a standardized approach to how they are implemented, the aviation system will ultimately end up with a disjointed patchwork of systems that cannot easily communicate with each other, despite being built on the same technologies.

The new entrants described above will continue to roll out their operational capabilities at a pace that traditional aviation cannot keep up with, leading to even more divergence. Not only does this separation increase the complexity and cost of connecting these systems together, but it can also impact safety and expose aviation to new cyber-related threats that were never considered before.

This is where ICAO’s work on the IATF is needed. ICAO provides an ideal forum for aviation stakeholders to come together and agree on a common destination that all stakeholders, new and old, can target irrespective of their implementation speed. This work leads to the development of standards and harmonized procedures that allow for seamless information exchanges between all parties so that we can maintain our seamless sky.  To address these unique challenges, ICAO is working with experts from around the world with different areas of expertise to develop an information management framework to ensure that information flowing across the internet is done safely and securely. ICAO is also developing policies and practices for digitally signing information to ensure it has not been altered while in transit over the internet.

These efforts, which are aligned with the ICAO Aviation Cybersecurity Strategy and Action Plan, provide the foundation for stakeholders to use the power of the internet to communicate on a global scale while meeting the unique and specific needs of aviation when it comes to information security and management. The next step in the process is to identify and put in place the steps to operationalize the IATF across all stakeholders. This is a unique and challenging role for ICAO. In this regard, we will be engaging with our governing bodies, Member States, and expert groups to determine the most appropriate way forward. Keep checking in with us as we embark on this exciting journey!

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