North by Northwest

Hacking a car is way too easy

By Andrew Leonard, Salon

Tuesday, Jun 25, 2013 02:50 PM EDT

Conspiracy theories about the cause of the car crash that killed investigative reporter Michael Hastings on June 18 started sprouting immediately after the news of his death broke. So far, no conclusive evidence supports foul play, but on Monday, counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke made news when he told the Huffington Post that the circumstances of Hastings’ car chase were “consistent with a car cyber attack.”

While hastening to state that he was not saying he believed the crash was a purposeful attack, Clarke did observe, reported the Huffington Post, that “‘There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers’ – including the United States – know how to remotely seize control of a car.”

(T)wo alarming papers by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego, (are) “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Vehicle,” and Comprehensive Experimental Analyses of Automotive Attack Surfaces.

Taken together, the papers make for scary reading. In the first the researchers demonstrate that it is a relatively trivial exercise to access the computer systems of a modern car and take control away from the driver. The second demonstrates that such mayhem can be achieved remotely, via a variety of methods. The inescapable conclusion: The modern car is a security disaster.

There turn out to be multiple pathways for car hackers. Diagnostic tools used by mechanics can give hackers laptop access to critical systems. If an attacker is able to get a music file preloaded with malware onto your iPod, just plugging it into a car’s USB port could give that attacker full access. Nearly all new cars now have two-way cellular capability necessary for such systems as GM’s On-Star that are purposely designed to faciliate access to all-important systems.

Your car, ultimately, might be more vulnerable to attack than your computer or smartphone, because there’s little evidence that there has been any systematic thought devoted to vehicle cyber-security. Quite the opposite. Cars are increasingly designed to allow remote access via a variety of input systems.

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