It's understandable that more than 100 drivers in Texas believed they had really bad luck or, at least for the more superstitious ones, that an evil ghost was controlling their cars. This is due to the fact that in 2010, more than 100 clients of a dealership by the name of Texas Auto Center encountered difficulties starting their automobiles. What's more, their car alarms blared continuously and only ceased when the batteries were taken from the vehicles. What some perceived as a string of coincidences and mechanical malfunctions was actually the product of a dissatisfied worker who later became a hacker.
In order to get back at his former Austin, Texas employer, Omar Ramos-Lopez, who had been fired by the Texas Auto Center, he decided to hack into the company's web-based vehicle immobilization system, which was typically used to disable the vehicles of people who had stopped making required payments. Ramos-Lopez, who was later apprehended, not only caused a lot of mayhem and sparked a wave of irate customer complaints, but he also exposed some of the weaknesses of our increasingly computer-dependent cars to an experienced and motivated hacker.
Despite the media attention Ramos-attempt Lopez's received, his hacking was quite minor in comparison to the risks identified by analysts at other colleges. In fact, researchers from the Universities of Washington and California, San Diego, demonstrated in 2010 that they could get into the computer systems that run cars and remotely control anything from the radio to the heater to the brakes. Researchers from the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University also showed how it was possible to intercept wireless signals transmitted by a car's tire pressure monitoring system in order to track the whereabouts of a vehicle.
Together, these incidents demonstrate how increasingly susceptible cars are to the types of infections, often known as malware, that hackers routinely deploy and which plague, annoy, and endanger PC users worldwide. Although the researchers themselves note that hackers have not yet affected many people, this obviously has major ramifications for drivers. However, the implications are obvious. Damon Petraglia, director of forensic and information security services at Chartstone Consulting and a trainer in computer forensics, says that if your car is infected, then anything that the infected computer is responsible for is infected. For example, if the computer controls the windows and locks, then the virus or malicious code can control the windows and locks. Continue reading to see why more technologically equipped cars are more dangerous. "Same goes for steering and braking."
More Devices = Greater Vulnerability
Any mechanic who grew up in the 1960s or 1970s will tell you that today's cars are unlike anything they ever learned to fix; they are so packed with electronics that they appear more like the domain of an IT expert than a grease monkey. Modern cars do indeed feature a lot of computers, even though most of them don't exactly resemble personal computers. Cameron Camp, a researcher at ESET, a technology security company, claims that compared to home computers, cars have considerably simpler processors and are made to do specific, easy-to-understand activities.
In fact, most modern cars include a large number of so-called "embedded systems," which are tiny computers that regulate a variety of intricate functions including air bag deployment, cruise control, anti-lock braking, and power seats. Although these embedded systems use hardware, software, memory, and a processor, they are more sophisticated than laptops and have an architecture similar to that of a smartphone. Due to the limited ways that automotive computers can communicate to other computers or people—unlike PCs—they have mostly been impervious to hackers and viruses.
In general, controlling the car physically was necessary to introduce a virus. According to Robert Hills, senior education program manager at the Universal Technical Institute, which specializes in technical education and training for the automotive industry, "In the past this would have been challenging as the only way to access a car's computer was through the use of a manufacturer's diagnostic or reprogramming equipment." In other words, it would be necessary for a mechanic to infect the computer or software that is used to identify a problem with the car.
Another researcher at ESET, Aryeh Goretsky, claims that the lack of hardware, software, and protocol standards makes it costly to create infections for many cars. That would make it more difficult for an attacker to focus on more than a few different car brands and models at once, he claims. But as automobile computers become more interconnected with the outside world, they become more susceptible to viruses and hackers.
Cas Mollien, an information and communication technology consultant at Bazic Blue, claims that as more and more automobiles integrate interfaces with websites like Pandora and even Facebook, "cars get two-way communication and are therefore by definition more vulnerable." There are more routes for viruses to potentially infect a car since there are more entertainment and communication gadgets, such as MP3 and iPod adapters and USB ports. Continue reading to learn why the increasing benefits of automotive computers also increase the risk.
A Look Into The Future
According to Cas Mollien of Bazic Blue, the emergence of communication and entertainment technology is not yet a significant issue. The worst that could happen, according to him, is that the multimedia equipment would malfunction as long as the multimedia interface is kept apart from the car's control systems. It is only a matter of time before a clever hacker finds a way to cross over once these two components are connected, thus we will have an issue. With the development of interconnected automobile computers, the issue might literally spread swiftly. According to Robert Hills of the Universal Technical Institute, "manufacturers are working on it and future automobiles will probably be able to communicate information about safety, traffic issues ahead, and more."
Unsurprisingly, automakers are reportedly working on strategies to stop hackers from infecting vehicles with viruses and causing other trouble, though specifics of their initiatives are not immediately accessible. However, perspectives are divided as to how serious of a problem this is for aspiring drivers. The moment to start planning, according to Petraglia of Chartstone Consulting, is now because doing so will enable the implementation of preventative steps before the issue becomes widespread. Goretsky, an ESET researcher, is unconcerned about it, though. Every day, whether we're using a computer or an automobile, we have to be concerned about threats, he claims. "I would most definitely purchase a vehicle despite the probable risk of a computer virus on it."