The vulnerability of high-tech cars

Molly Wood Aug 22, 2012

The vulnerability of high-tech cars

Molly Wood Aug 22, 2012

Any computer hooked up to the Internet is a potential victim of malicious hackers.

Of course, it’s one thing to be hacked on a desktop PC, it’s quite another to be hacked in your car, traveling at 70 miles an hour, with a computer that controls your brakes and steering.

Yoshi Kohno is part of a research team studying car computer security at the University of Washington. He says don’t freak out. Yet. “I would say it’s actually very unlikely that someone will be injured due to hacker compromising their car today, but it is true that the car is becoming increasingly pervasively computerized, and wireless networks are being connected to the car, and if we don’t start addressing the computer security risks with the modern automobile today, then the risks would increase in the future.”

Now, you’re unlikely to download a virus from a web browser in your car but Kohno says there are other ways for bad guys to get in. “Some cars have telematics units that can call 911 when the car gets into an accident, so one potential for someone to compromise a computer in the car is to actually call the car’s built in phone number. There are a number of other ways as well. For example, the car receives satellite radio signals. Those could potentially be an entry point for an adversary.”

New holes in car security may also come about from our collective urge to be amused, says Bruce Snell. He’s a researcher for McAfee and part of a group that’s been testing onboard computers.

Bruce Snell: Car manufacturers are putting these things to keep us entertained while we’re driving, which when you think about it, there’s one thing that you should be doing while you’re driving a car and that’s driving

Moe: Driving a car, yes.

Snell: Not watching a DVD or checking Facebook, but people seem to want these things, and so an automotive manufacturer traditionally has the expertise of building a vehicle

But NOT necessarily building social media apps or video streaming services. Still, if buyers want those things, car makers will build them. Says Snell: “Doing that, it actually does leave a little bit of a security gap because you can’t guarantee that these people have done their due diligence when they starting building this equipment.”

So how good is security today, right now? Yoshi Kohno recalls a car he recently investigated. Says Kohno: “The automobile we studied had security moderately equivalent to the security you’d find in a desktop computer in the mid-1990s.”

Kohno says that while car computer security has been an afterthought, all hope is not lost. “Back when the desktop computers were being designed, in the 80s and 90s, they weren’t pervasively networked. They weren’t on the Internet, and so they didn’t think about computer security as much as they do today when every computer is on the Internet. The same thing is true for the modern automobile. When it was originally designed, it was not connected to other computers, over the Internet or anywhere else. But, that is changing now.”

Now we’ll just see if car makers and security experts can evolve faster than the bad guys.


Presenting Tech Report Theater. Producer Larissa Anderson will play herself, I will play myself.

Larissa Anderson: Bold casting.

Moe: Thank you. Okay, here we go. Hey Larissa, I’m going to need some help getting in and out of the studio when we record today. Doors and stuff.

Anderson: Yeah, I would think so considering you’re just an iPad attached to some sort of robot with wheels.

Moe: Oh, you noticed. Yeah. It’s called the Double, it’s a robot built to go to work while I stay home. I’m on an iPad, video conferencing and moving around by robot. (thump) Who put that wall there?

Anderson: Always been there. How much did this cost?

Moe: Two grand plus two iPads. They’re selling out.

Anderson: Why not just work from home and send emails? All the time setting it up, the expense, and you can’t open doors.

Moe: But… Robot. So good idea.

Anderson: Not good idea. Watch what happens when I put you on your side and walk away.

Moe: Hey come back! Could someone lift me… Hey… Point taken. Aaaaand scene.

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