Researchers Find Cars Are Vulnerable to Cyber Attacks

Illustration: jamestoons/iStockphoto.

You would be forgiven for not wanting to plow through a technical paper entitled “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile,” but its implications are absolutely hair-raising.

For some reason, nobody thought much about the modern computer-controlled car getting hacked, but some researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California were able to do it without much trouble. They demonstrated that, once they hacked in, they could disable the brakes (!) or activate them at will, turn off the engine or send it racing as in the sudden acceleration cases now plaguing Toyota and other makes. They even flicked the lights on and off.

The researchers demonstrated “the ability to adversarily control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input.” Which means you’d be perfectly powerless as they moved you about with a joystick like a slot car. Volkswagen, working with Stanford University, has demonstrated something like that with "Junior," a Passat diesel wagon that drives all by itself — and can do some fancy maneuvers.

The good news is that most current cars are more “dumb” than “smart,” and thus not all that susceptible to this problem. “They [the bad guys] would need physical access to the car,” said Yoshi Kohno of the University of Washington, a report co-author.

But tomorrow’s Bluetooth-enabled vehicles could be severely at risk. It's all about convenience: Coming soon are cars that you can warm up in winter days with a punch of a few cellphone buttons, and electric vehicles for which a charging session can be controlled from the Internet. It's already possible to open a locked car with a cellphone, as this video demonstrates:

According to an e-mail sent me by Stephen Northcott, president of the SANS Technology Institute (they train the FBI and NSA on security issues), you should get familiar with your car’s Controller Area Network (CAN). “Other than the fact it exposes your car to hacking, it is a wonderful invention,” Northcott said.

“Some genius” decided to connect the Bluetooth network to the unsecured CAN, which means that “standard hacking would be a matter of sending control messages,” Northcott said.

According to report co-author Stefan Savage of the University of California, “The CAN allows different parts of the car to talk to each other” — as in the gas pedal sending electronic messages to the otherwise unconnected accelerator. Some experts worry that these signals are subject to interference, causing sudden acceleration, but they could also be vulnerable to a malicious attack from outside in a Bluetooth-enabled car. “We’re talking about very specific targeted failures from an adversary,” Savage said.

As Technology Review describes it, “[The authors’] main concern is a growing trend in the automotive industry to fit automobiles with external wireless connections. Just as security problems in desktop computers became more significant with the advent of broadband, network-connected cars could be a bigger target.”

Mike Bright, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, told me that terrorists would likely be after bigger game than screwing up your car, but the idiot kid next door with a fast connection and a grudge might want to make your life miserable by starting and stopping your car at will.

Hacking like this will occur unless carmakers build firewalls to stop it. Automakers have been courting bloggers; now they need to get inside the minds of those devious types who send out Internet worms.