A Lesson in Car Hacking: What Drivers Need to Know

February 27th, 2015 by

In this age, hacking is very relevant. And it poses serious threats to our digital lives. Cars are now vulnerable as well. Maybe not the old ‘67 Ford, but today’s modern vehicles are essentially computers on wheels. Most of the American public may not know much about this world of car-hacking–pens and pads out friends, welcome to Car Hacking 101.

It began with German researchers who found a flaw in BMW’s remote-services system that allowed them to access the telematics units in vehicles. To put it more simply another news story covered by 60 Minutes demonstrated that technicians could remotely infiltrate a Chevrolet Impala and override functions as critical as acceleration and braking. In a more current report, a US Senator revealed that most automakers are not prepared to handle these hacks.

This all can be quite concerning, but knowledge is the first step:

What Has Changed?

Sure, the exterior changes to cars are easy to notice, but what’s on the inside is a great deal more tricky. New cars generally employ more than 50 microprocessors known as electronic control units. ECUs control a host of functions, including airbag deployment, navigation, throttle control, braking, and much more.

What is Car Hacking?

In this context, it is unwanted or unauthorized cyber invasions into a vehicle that alters the state of the car. From eavesdropping and unlocking car doors to overriding driver inputs and controlling vital functions such as braking, steering, and acceleration, once inside, the hacker can get to almost anything.

How Does It Work?

Little did you know, there are more gateways in your vehicle than just the side doors. Any service or part of the car that has the capacity to communicate with the outside world can serve as an entry point for hackers.

The most at-risk equipment in the vehicles is the computing power behind your infotainment features, especially when smartphone connections are an option. It’s not just your infotainment system. Bluetooth and smartphone connections certainly are vulnerable, but there’s also areas you may not have considered–diagnostic devices, dongles, and even tire pressure monitoring systems.

What Is Happening?

You’re not behind, don’t worry. Car hacking is fairly recent. Seeing that, in just 2010 researchers at the University of Washington and California-San Diego published their findings, which demonstrated how they could compromise a regular car through hacking.

2013 rolls around, and Dr. Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek manipulate a Ford Escape and Toyota Prius and share their research with the public.

More recently, dongles that plug into OBD-II ports have been targeted. An Israeli-based research firm, Argus Cyber Security, has remotely exploited a device that provides driver feedback. Then researchers also found a dongle that Progressive Insurance was using to collect insurance data from customers.

Is It Really That Big Of A Deal?

There’s been no real-world incidents that have harmed drivers in any way. But there is the potential that they could. Car hacking shouldn’t be taken lightly. Hackers are becoming more familiar with more advanced terrain. In a digital world, there are unknown dangers in almost everything we do–it doesn’t stop us from doing these things of course, but at the very least, we should all be aware of what dangers we may find ourselves in with a simple click.

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