Security Alert: Could Hackers Break Into Your Car—Virtually?

May 18, 2010
Volvo Personal Car Communicator (PCC)

Volvo Personal Car Communicator (PCC)

More expensive, more technologically advanced vehicles offer better all-around security, right? Well, maybe, but as new research to be unveiled this week looks poised to suggest, you might be opening yourself up to another type of break-in and presenting a challenge to hackers instead of mere street thieves.

Scientists have reported that they were able to hack into vehicles and control a number of functions including braking and other safety-critical features.

Though the kind of hacking might be more likely to be in the name of mischief than remote carjacking, it's certainly cause for worry—and a hint that your in-car settings might not be as guarded as those behind a firewall on your home PC.

As the New York Times reported this past week, the researchers are accusing the auto industry of not learning from the mistakes of the personal computing industry, and not adequately thinking about potential threats from hackers.

The results are to be presented with a paper—due to be presented this week at a security conference in Oakland, California—called “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile,” by a host of researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego.

Using various techniques, the researchers were able to break into vehicle networks and activate or change a range of features—in many cases, while the vehicle was in motion.

Chevrolet Volt OnStar mobile app

Chevrolet Volt OnStar mobile app

Prior to the presentation, it's not clear whether the report will refer to GM's OnStar system, which offers remote unlocking services, or if the weak link, typically, is key fobs, Bluetooth systems, or core vehicle systems, but we'll keep you posted.

With more vehicles incorporating remote start features, vehicle networks, and screen-based interfaces, and with smartphone interfaces on the way for a number of vehicles including the 2011 Nissan LEAF and 2011 Chevrolet Volt (GM has just today revealed that Google Maps location services will be included), it's at the very least time to get proactive and apply more of the same principles we've been using to guard our PCs to our vehicles as well.

[New York Times]

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