Hackers aren't trying to wreck your car, they just want your cash

October 17, 2016

With self-driving software and vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems racing toward our cars, trucks, and crossovers, many people are worried about hackers. Those concerns are absolutely justified, but perhaps not for the reasons you think.

It's human nature to believe that the worst harm anyone or anything can do to us is physical in nature. As kids, we're terrified by gorey stories of boogeymen under the bed and hook-handed escaped convicts lurking along deserted roads.

So it's not surprising that many folks worry that hackers want to run them off the highways by controlling their cars' brakes and steering wheels. We've even seen those kinds of scenarios play out in the real world in Jeeps and other vehicles

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But those sorts of tasks are among the hardest for hackers to pull off, because they require total control over a vehicle--brakes, steering, the whole shebang. Also, attacks like that are one-shot deals: they either work or they don't, and even if they do, there's not much for hackers to gain.

Burrowing into a car's computer network and digging out financial and identity information, though? That's a very different story. And since the results of such breaches may not be immediately visible, hackers can continue making covert forays into a car or group of cars, racking up masses of data.

What might they do with all that data?

Drain your bank account(s): Do you use Apple Pay or some other sort of payment system on your smartphone? Do you log into banking websites on the device, too? Hackers may be able to slip into your phone via your car's infotainment system, nabbing that important data. Even if they don't use it themselves, folks on the dark web will pay big bucks for that kind of info.

Break into your car: Today, most cars are unlocked via key fobs, which have their own vulnerabilities. In the future, locks may become tied to our smartphones, and hacking into those phones via an infotainment system could provide ne'er-do-wells with the ability to break into our cars and make off with whatever they like--including the cars themselves.

Hold your car for ransom: A growing number of people are falling prey to hackers who hold their computers for ransom. They unwittingly open innocent-looking attachments, and suddenly, their laptops are on lockdown. Their only recourse is to pay a fee to the hackers for unlock codes. That kind of scenario could easily play out in cars, too.

The IIHS estimates that by 2020, some 55 percent of all new vehicles will be connected to a network like OnStar or Uconnect. With aftermarket solutions for older cars, the organization believes that 50 percent of all the cars on the planet will have some level of connectivity.

That's a problem, because once cars are able to "talk"--either to a network or each other--they become vulnerable to hackers. 

Sadly, there's not much that vehicle owners can do to keep hackers out. We have to rely on the people who make cars and the software that goes into them to keep our vehicles' barriers safe and secure. And yet, only about 40 percent of car companies currently have units dedicated to cybersecurity.

Will the industry catch up? We'll keep you posted.

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