Are modern cars vulnerable to hackers?


Modern Cars vs. Hackers: Remote Hacking

Are ghosts in our motoring machines an inevitability? Should we go back to the horse and buggy days?

Not necessarily. There is some good news, for the time being, anyway: Cars are singularly unattractive to most hackers because they're, well, so singular. The things that thrill hackers, namely notoriety, respect from peers, and everyone's favorite, cash, simply don't scale on individual cars like they do with "regular" computing exploits -- which can affect many thousands of people with each successful hacking attempt.

Also, the older your car is (and therefore the less electronically integrated), the fewer openings a would-be car hacker has from which to stage an attack.

On the other hand, if a malevolent hacker and his buddies:

  • Have an axe to grind with you in particular
  • Are hired by a business rival, a vengeful ex-lover or a political foe of yours
  • Randomly pick you as a "project demonstration" for a new type of hack

... and you own a later model car, then they might consider it worthwhile to mess with your car.

Another thing to consider: desirable vehicles are also desirable to criminals, especially intelligent criminals who know their tech. High-end car thieves target expensive automobiles for two reasons: They fetch a good price and many would-be buyers don't ask questions about where they came from. But as security mechanisms on pricey (and now even mid-range) cars have gotten more sophisticated, so have the criminals.

The Holy Grail of car hacks is to snatch control of a car without ever having to physically touch it. On most current cars, which aren't connected to any outside networks such as the Internet, this isn't very practical. However, as more vehicles use wireless technology to connect with one another and with outside services like telematics, the vulnerabilities grow.

The University of California, San Diego, and University of Washington researchers noted that it's possible to hijack currently available vehicles remotely. In their report they wrote:

"We discover that remote exploitation is feasible via a broad range of attack vectors (including mechanics tools, CD players, Bluetooth and cellular radio), and further, that wireless communications channels allow long distance vehicle control, location tracking, in-cabin audio exfiltration and theft" [source: Savage, Stefan, et al].

In other words, hackers can get their grubby little mitts on certain vehicles, virtually, in multiple ways. In turn, they can take over many of the driving controls, track targeted cars, eavesdrop on conversations and steal cars outright.

Will they actually want to go through all the trouble, when there are much more efficient ways out there to steal and harass? That remains to be seen.

Author's Note: Are modern cars vulnerable to hackers?

If you haven't experienced it yet, know that being a victim of high-tech crime is no picnic. I got an inconvenient reminder of this fact when a fraudster hacked my debit card -- the very week I wrote this article!

Thieves and thugs will always find ways to take things they did not work for, whether those ill-gotten gains happen to be digital dollars or electronically "protected" cars. The most astonishing thing for me in writing this piece was learning just how vulnerable modern automobiles are to high-tech attack. As much as I love car gadgetry, I'd have to think twice about using my car as an integrated, cloud-connected "hub" for my digital life -- an objective many car companies and suppliers seem to be pushing toward. Researchers have already demonstrated the potential, if not yet the real-world threat, of vehicular mischief through on-board computers. I guess it's worrying news for drivers, but a great development for PC antivirus companies looking to expand!

That said, I think the same advice applies as always: Enjoy the convenience that technology provides, but go in aware of the risks and how you can reduce your vulnerability.

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Sources

  • Barry, Keith. "Can Your Car Be Hacked?" Car and Driver. July 2011 (August issue). (Nov. 19, 2012) http://www.caranddriver.com/features/can-your-car-be-hacked-feature
  • Boatman, Kim. "Can Your Car Be Hacked?" Norton (Symantec). (Nov. 20, 2012) http://us.norton.com/yoursecurityresource/detail.jsp?aid=car_computer
  • Burgess, Rick. "Car viruses? Intel aims to protect drivers from hackers." Techspot. Aug. 21, 2012. (Nov. 19, 2012) http://www.techspot.com/news/49858-car-viruses-intel-aims-to-protect-drivers-from-hackers.html
  • Finkle, Jim. "Hacker attack on your car's computer could be lethal: experts." Reuters, via The Globe and Mail. Aug. 20, 2012. (Nov. 19, 2012) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/technology/tech-news/hacker-attack-on-your-cars-computer-could-be-lethal-experts/article4489553/
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  • Lawton, George. "Could Hackers Take Your Car for a Ride?" Computing Now. December 2011. (Nov. 17, 2012) http://www.computer.org/portal/web/computingnow/news/could-hackers-take-your-car-for-a-ride
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