Security, Code and Hollywood. UP Q&A: How Phil Watson Helped Design the Secure Cabin

Panasonic Avionics< Panasonic Avionics
07/19/17 8 MIN READ

UP’s Q&A recurring feature profiles some of the people at the heart of the Panasonic Avionics organization. Today we bring you Phil Watson, one of the company’s senior principal engineers and one of the IFEC industry wizards outside the spotlights.

When Phil Watson began working at Panasonic Avionics 27 years ago, the company — Matsushita Avionics Development Corporation, as it was known at the time — had just opened a research and development facility in Irvine, Calif. There were about 30 people working for the company while operating in a small office building. Soon, though, the company would blossom into one of the leading innovators in the aviation industry.

Watson became one of the integral parts of its evolution, spearheading what would eventually become the system engineering department. Initially, Watson, who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from University of California, Irvine and a Master’s in computer science from California State University, Fullerton, worked on embedded programming — specifically on the area distribution box (ADB) that managed seats throughout the cabin of an aircraft.

He steadily improved the system before turning his attention to the passenger service system, which controls the overhead lights above each passenger seat. Today, he leads a close-knit team of system software engineers, providing requirements and high-level design guidance. Beyond his position at Panasonic, Watson has also become a well-known leader in his field and an innovator in system design.

Over the course of his time as director and principal engineer, Watson, 49, has been largely responsible for system specification, which covers all of the IFE systems on an aircraft. He also keeps close tabs on the satellite connectivity and wireless network’s ground system that goes along with it. Watson has also played a major role in securing the digital rights from Hollywood to show recently released movies with partner airlines, but more importantly, he helped devise a secure system that is constantly evolving to prevent any malicious or threatening cybersecurity breach.

UP: Security has been one of your primary focus areas over the past 10 years. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in this space?

Phil Watson (Phil): It started with credit cards, then Hollywood movies, and has kept going from there. It’s really the scope of security concerns that has gotten bigger — the encryption protocol hasn’t changed much since we designed it a long time ago. The biggest change has been protecting our system against passengers that have bad software on their devices. Over the last 10 years, we went from a fairly disconnected system to one that allows you to connect your personal device directly into the system.

We constantly need to stay ahead of the game, it’s not a static effort. Theoretically, our attackers are changing as often as we do, so we have to keep adding more protection and keep adapting. Recently, there have been claims that someone hacked the plane and made it do something weird. Even though those claims are unfounded, we have to be prepared to respond and demonstrate that what we’re doing makes things next to impossible to breach.

UP: Has the industry been able to come together to create standards for security?

Phil: I’ve been participating personally the past seven years on a committee sponsored by the FAA and a group of industry volunteers, along with Airbus, Boeing, and other vendors that make avionics equipment from around the world, to document the process of how to certify an aircraft as secure. For years, the industry has focused on safety; in addition, they’re now defining security protocols. I helped coin the term PIES (Passenger Information Entertainment Services) in ARINC 664 Part 5, the first standardization of security domains in an aircraft. I felt it was important to add an “I,” to call it information and entertainment services, because we have connectivity and we’re more than just entertainment.

UP: In what ways did your past experience working with Hollywood prepare you for this aspect?

Phil: Involvement with wireless entertainment — that was an interesting effort. Back in the System 2000 days, it was all on a videocassette (Panasonic’s first entertainment system fielded in 1992, using broadcast analog video and digital audio). It’s a lot harder to steal content on a videocassette. When we began the eFX system, we received relatively quick approval from the studios after providing the necessary documentation on how we were protecting the content.

Once we told them we wanted to stream directly to a passenger device, we had to come up with a way to demonstrate to studios that the content would be secure enough, so that passengers wouldn’t be able to breach and download.

The Hollywood studios had already known about our secure system, but they were uncomfortable with approving something that put the content on passenger-controlled devices. They would sometimes host industry standardization meetings that I would attend [the technical committee of the WAEA, now called APEX], but there would always be one or two holdouts to setting a common security standard for IFE. We had to go to individual studios to discuss it. Once each knew we had and would maintain a commercial DRM (digital rights management) package to protect their content, they were happy.

“The biggest change has been protecting our system against passengers that have bad software on their devices. Over the last 10 years, we went from a fairly disconnected system to one that allows you to connect your personal device directly into the system.”
-Phil Watson
Senior Principal Engineer at Panasonic Avionics

UP: Did you ever envision you’d be working at Panasonic? What has your experience been like?

Phil: Surprisingly, Panasonic was my first job after I got my Master’s degree 26 years ago. This is where I’ve been ever since. I actually started a few months before I received my degree for the software systems in 1991, working on the ADB that managed the seats. That was a device that was four inches high and six inches square, placed in the overhead, with eight of them distributed through the cabin. I worked on that for some time and on the next generation system called the 2000e. In 1996, I handed off that responsibility to another engineer and began working on the telephone subsystem, which would handle all the telephone protocol through a high-bandwidth telephone bust to the satellite communications unit on the aircraft. That was the first version of voice over IP (VoIP) before it really existed.

After two years, I moved on to replace the passenger service system, which controls the overhead lights, the reading lights, attendant call light — using very similar protocols to the ADB. In 1998, I became the software manager and soon, the director of the software engineering group. In 2002, I moved and worked from London for three years, writing systems specification documents, an effort which eventually became the systems engineering department.

UP: During that time, companies faced serious loss and retention issues due to the dot-com bubble. What was that like for you, considering you headed a department?

Phil: That was an interesting time because a lot of people were leaving to go make their fortunes in stocks and startups, so the software department got down to 15 people at one point. I had to hire to bring it back up to 30. It’s interesting because a lot of people who left ended up coming back and saying, “Hey, it didn’t work out. Can I have a job?”

UP: Did you give any of them one?

Phil: (Laughs) Yes, I hired some of them back.

UP: Why did you stay?

Phil: I stayed because Panasonic is trying to duplicate the home environment on an aircraft, so there is always something new to work on. I’ve worked on serial device control, cable television technology, Nintendo game cards, VoIP, studio-grade encryption for digital video, credit card security, satellite communications, network and enterprise security.

UP: How has Panasonic fit your personality, and vice versa?

Phil: Cookie cutter doesn’t work here, so it fits me because I’m both analytical and creative. When I interview someone or I’m looking to hire someone new, we want people who are going to drive innovation through intuitive thought. I ask myself for each candidate whether they personally fit with how our organization works, because we are a dynamic and flexible group.

UP: It sounds like teamwork is a big thing for you. Did you play sports when you were younger?

Phil: I was never a big sports person. Panasonic is a relationship based company. You won’t survive here without building respect and trust with the many stakeholders of complex topics like the ones my team is working on.

UP: So, was your childhood focused more on figuring out how things worked?

Phil: I guess you could say that. In the summer, my father was working mainframes at a newspaper publisher. I would go to his mainframe computer and teach myself how to program. Of course, I would also play adventure games but from a scientific standpoint, I always wanted to know how things worked. So yes, I used to take things apart a lot.

UP: Seems like that experience has become handy. Thanks for your time, Phil.

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