Yes, Virginia, There Is A Downside To High-Tech Cars: Hacking

May 18, 2010
Trinity, professional hacker [from The Matrix]

Trinity, professional hacker [from The Matrix]

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The line between cars and computers has begun to blur, leaving tech geeks like us giddy. In-car internet, real-time eco-driving feedback, social media apps: they're all great things, and they point to a day when gearheads and propellerheads will be wearing the same hat. But there is, in fact, a downside to all this seamless connectivity, this networking of transportation. In fact, there are thousands of downsides, and they could be living right next door: hackers.

Movies have done a great job of showing the havoc that out-of-control computers can wreak. Think of 2001, War Games, or everyone's favorite fembot masterpiece, the original Stepford Wives: in each scenario, systems run amok and cause major problems for the protagonists. So why shouldn't we expect glitches in our increasingly computerized real-world rides? Clearly, we should.

As our colleagues at TCC mentioned, scientists from the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego will present a paper this week entitled “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile”. In it, they accuse the auto industry of not learning from the mistakes of the personal computing sector and failing to provide adequate safeguards for in-car computers.

To make their point, scientists hacked into computer systems and gained remote control of a vehicle -- while it was in motion. As they state in the paper, "We demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input — including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on." The scientists also created and implanted viruses into onboard computers and successfully erased evidence of tampering.

In other words, apart from the normal worries we have about internet security -- like theft of financial data and personal identity -- now we have to be concerned for our physical safety, too? Ugh. That's not how we like to kick off our Tuesdays.

Frankly, we're a little surprised that we haven't seen more hacking on mobile devices, either through apps or through the mobile web. Maybe that's because the market and possibilities aren't worth hackers' time just yet. Rest assured, though: that will change, and of course, the danger will migrate to automobiles tricked out with apps of their own and web-ready telematics systems. We're hopeful that handset makers and automakers will both create systems to oversee web standards for their devices and get ahead of the hackers. In fact, we insist on it.

[NYTimes via TheCarConnection]

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