Career Hacker Fleeced by the FBI in Syracuse

Last Thursday, veteran hacker Chris Roberts made a huge mistake. He was enjoying the in-flight WiFi on a United Airlines flight from his home base in Denver to Syracuse, New York when he noticed that certain things were visible to him. Here’s the tweet heard ’round the world:


Warrantless Search and Seizure

When the plane landed in Syracuse, Roberts was hauled away by FBI agents who interrogated him for four hours about his activities while in-flight. Knowing his rights, Roberts declined to voluntarily surrender his encrypted digital devices. Thus, eventually the agents simply took them.

This is precisely the sort of thing the fourth amendment was written to protect against. It reads, verbatim:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Also read: President Obama Rumored to Create Government Agency for Cyber-Attacks

The officers who have seized the property will now have to swear to tell the truth at some point — that they believed that Roberts’ devices contained evidence of criminal activity. Preservation of evidence is, no matter how one views it, protected by several higher court rulings throughout American history.


Roberts Contracts with Governments

One of the many ironies in this story is that Roberts had recently made public that in-flight hacking was a very real possibility. Imagine if the #CyberCaliphate movement had existed around September 11th, 2001, for instance, and all things were the same except the security state which now seems so normal. Roberts told Fox News:

It is possible. […] It is definitely difficult. It takes a lot of research, and you have to typically be on a lot of flights to figure out the different architectures of the different planes. And I would argue that the FAA is not ready for it. […] Theoretically, you can also leave devices behind and remotely get in through the onboard wireless.

Roberts’ official biography profiles him as someone who has most likely helped the FBI on more than one occasion:

Regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on counter threat intelligence within the cyber security industry, Chris Roberts constructs and directs One World Labs’ comprehensive portfolio of cyber defense services designed to improve the physical and digital security posture of both its enterprise and government clients.

Though we have made contact with Mr. Roberts, we have yet to discuss this experience of his in detail. What is known at present is that he was released from custody several hours after being detained, minus his property (though he was allowed to keep his phone), and he has since tweeted:


Although Roberts undoubtedly has the skills to do most anything he wants with most any network he is in range of, he has never expressed malicious intent. He is a “researcher” in the purest sense of the word.

The aviation industry has been ignoring his warnings about installing new creature comforts for as long as five years now, instead competing with each other to put lives in danger. Recent articles in Hacked and elsewhere have demonstrated that more and more disturbed people are meshing with highly skilled hackers, and something like disabling a navigation system or slightly routing a plane off course, is certainly not outside their means. This brings to mind the possibility that Roberts’ whole episode with United Airlines and the FBI was, in fact, a conscious move to bring attention to an issue close to his heart: security in commercial flight networking and its implied seriousness.

Featured image from Shutterstock.



P. H. Madore has covered the cryptocurrency beat over the course of hundreds of articles for Hacked's sister site, CryptoCoinsNews, as well as some of her competitors. He is a major contributing developer to the Woodcoin project, and has made technical contributions on a number of other cryptocurrency projects. In spare time, he recently began a more personalized, weekly newsletter at