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Wow: The JFK Airport Taxi Dispatch System Was Hacked

Wow: The JFK Airport Taxi Dispatch System Was Hacked

Two men have been arrested for conspiring with Russian nationals to hack the taxi system at John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York. This is kind of fascinating…

Hackers accused taxi drivers of cutting lines

Damian Williams, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and John Gay, Inspector General of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, have just announced the dismissal of a two-count indictment charging Daniel Abayev and Peter Leyman. of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.

In particular, the pair hacked the electronic taxi system at JFK Airport, and then profited from it. Taxi drivers must wait for a hold at JFK before being sent to a specific terminal to pick up a ticket. This waiting time can often be several hours. A computer system must ensure that taxis are dispatched in the order in which they arrive.

Between September 2019 and September 2021, the two men (who are US citizens) conspired with Russian citizens to hack the dispatch system and move certain taxis to the front of the queue, in exchange for payment.

They tried a variety of techniques to gain access to the dispatch system, including bribing someone to insert a flash drive containing malware into computers connected to the dispatch system, gaining unauthorized access to the dispatch system via a Wi-Fi connection, and stealing tablets connected to the dispatch system.

Once the system was hacked, the couple would charge taxi drivers $10 each time to jump to the front of the queue. Through word of mouth, taxi drivers learned they could skip the line with a $10 payment. Alternatively, taxi drivers could have the fee waived if they recruited others to the scheme.

The hacking scheme used large group chats to communicate with taxi drivers. Once the hacking scheme had access to the dispatch system, a member would type “shop open.” Once the system was hacked, up to 1,000 expedited rides would be booked per day, which would equate to up to $10,000 in daily earnings.

Taxi drivers were also sent messages instructing them how to avoid detection by police when using rides purchased from the hacking scheme, such as the following:

DEAR DRIVER!!!! PLEASE !!!!

Don’t wait at the gas station in JFK

Please do not walk around CTH [Central Taxi Hold] Lot

Please do not wait for Rockway off

You have to be very very careful

Hackers can face up to 10 years in prison

The two men behind this scheme were arrested this morning, and will be brought before a judge today. The charge of conspiracy to commit computer hacking carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison (although they are quite unlikely to get that).

This is how US Attorney Damian Williams describes this case:

“As alleged in the indictment, these two defendants – with the help of Russian hackers – took the Port Authority for a ride. For years, the defendants’ hacking prevented honest cab drivers from being able to collect fares at JFK in the order they arrived. Now, thanks to this office’s cooperation with the Port Authority, these defendants are facing serious charges for their alleged cybercrime.”

In the meantime, here’s how Port Authority Inspector General John Gay describes this case:

“This sophisticated, internationally coordinated conspiracy allegedly targeted hard-working taxi drivers trying to make an honest living. The Port Authority has zero tolerance for bad actors breaking the law at our facilities. We thank Damian Williams and the Southern District for their partnership as we continue our relentless commitment to detect and disrupt illegal behavior at our facilities across the region.”

The bottom line

Two men have been arrested for conspiring with Russian nationals to hack the taxi system of JFK. With this arrangement, they would charge drivers $10 per trip for priority pickup, and they would do this for up to 1,000 people per day.

Taxi drivers in New York have it tough enough these days, given the competition from ride-sharing apps and how much they were paying for their medallions. It’s a shame that someone wants to hurt those who play by the rules even more.

What do you think about this taxi arrangement?

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