Should You Worry About Your Car Being Hacked? Yes & No

February 10, 2015

Yesterday, the internet was ablaze with talk of hackers. Why? Because Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) released a report on potential security loopholes in our cars' onboard computers, based on data provided by 16 automakers. 

Should you worry about your own car being hacked? Yes and no.

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People have expressed concerns about cars and hackers since motherboards first appeared in dashboards. Some critics of those computing systems have made measured and valid points, while others shrieking doom and gloom have clearly been sporting tinfoil hats. Still others have seemed poised to profit from increased demand for security software

To date, our take on the matter has been that hacking isn't a real issue for most vehicle owners -- at least not yet. As we saw a couple of years ago, taking control of a car's computer is a very complicated, clumsy process, requiring significant technical know-how, not to mention access to the target vehicle's interior. Before someone hijacks your steering system, you'll probably notice them in your backseat, with a laptop plugged into your dashboard.

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The problem -- or rather, the problem for hackers -- is that our cars aren't fully networked. The much-discussed but still-elusive system of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which promises to slash the number of auto accidents in America, has yet to be implemented on any meaningful scale. As a result, our cars still operate as large, clunky islands unto themselves -- islands full of software, but software that doesn't expose the "guts" of our cars' control centers to bad guys and gals.

Complicating matters for hackers is the fact that the operating software used by automakers is proprietary and varied. So, the code found on a Fort Taurus isn't the same as that found on a Fiat 500. For folks interested in creating chaos, that makes the payoff much more limited. Unlike a Windows bug that can infect huge swaths of laptops, a bug installed on a Toyota will have limited range -- very limited if the Toyota doesn't "talk" to other vehicles.

That said, this scenario is changing. Where once we had to take our cars to dealerships for software tweaks, some of us are now getting over-the-air updates. Every time we do that, our car is connecting to a network, and every time we join a network, there's an opportunity for hackers to drop in a virus.

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The day when ne'er-do-wells can take over an accelerator from the other side of the globe is still fairly far off. In the near future, though, there are two areas of real concern for motorists:

PRIVACY: A couple of years ago, we told you about the Nissan Leaf and how early iterations of the models' onboard software tracked owners' driving and travel habits. While Nissan ultimately addressed the problem, similar issues are popping up all the time -- with the automakers' permission.

For example, General Motors' OnStar recently launched something called AtYourService, which tells OnStar subscribers about nearby shopping deals, hotel discounts, and more. For AtYourService to work, OnStar obviously needs to know where drivers are, what their interests are, and so on. One good data breach -- like the kind we've seen at banks, major retailers, and other businesses in recent years -- and your personal details could end up in the hands of some very unsavory people.

SMARTPHONE APPS: Our cars' control centers may not be connected to massive networks, but we can still interact with our vehicles in limited ways via our smartphones. Many, many models now have apps that offer remote starting, remote unlocking, and other features, which bad folks can exploit to enter vehicles and, if not steal them, at least make off with the packages left in the backseat. (A similar kind of vulnerability was identified in BMW, MINI, and Rolls-Royce cars just a couple of weeks ago.) 


As Senator Markey's report explains, the threat of hacked cars isn't a real concern to most drivers these days. Criminals love a big payoff, and at the moment, the payoff from hacking vehicles is simply too small.

But make no mistake: the day is coming when our vehicles will be fully networked. They'll be talking to each other, to traffic lights, to charging stations, to sensors embedded roadways -- everything. By all accounts, this will be hugely beneficial for drivers, reducing the number of traffic fatalities and allowing vehicles to function autonomously. It will also make hacking cars a far more lucrative endeavor.

The goal now is to ensure that these auto networks can't be exploited to harm vehicles or their passengers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is already working on plans to keep connected cars safe, but Markey's report suggests that automakers themselves should share information, develop standards, and collaborate on solving problems like these before it's too late.


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