Car hackers can kill brakes, engine, and more

University researchers have taken a close look at the computer systems used to run today's cars and discovered new ways to hack into them, sometimes with frightening results.

In a paper set to be presented at a security conference in Oakland, California, next week, the security researchers say that by connecting to a standard diagnostic computer port included in late-model cars, they were able to do some nasty things, such as turning off the brakes, changing the speedometer reading, blasting hot air or music on the radio, and locking passengers in the car.

In a late 2009 demonstration at a decommissioned airfield in Blaine Washington, they hacked into a test car's electronic braking system and prevented a test driver from braking a moving car -- no matter how hard he pressed on the brakes. In other tests, they were able to kill the engine, falsify the speedometer reading, and automatically lock the car's brakes unevenly, a maneuver that could destabilize the car traveling high speeds. They ran their test by plugging a laptop into the car's diagnostic system and then controlling that computer wirelessly, from a laptop in a vehicle riding next to the car.

The point of the research isn't to scare a nation of drivers, already made nervous by stories of software glitches, faulty brakes and massive automotive recalls. It's to warn the car industry that it needs to keep security in mind as it develops more sophisticated automotive computer systems.

"We think this is an industry issue," said Stefan Savage, an associate professor with the University of California, San Diego.

He and co-researcher Tadayoshi Kohno of the University of Washington, describe the real-world risk of any of the attacks they've worked out as extremely low. An attacker would have to have sophisticated programming abilities and also be able to physically mount some sort of computer on the victim's car to gain access to the embedded systems. But as they look at all of the wireless and Internet-enabled systems the auto industry is dreaming up for tomorrow's cars, they see some serious areas for concern.

"If there's no action taken on the part of all the relevant stakeholders, then I think there might be a reason to be concerned," Kohno said. Neither he nor Savage would name the maker of the car they conducted their tests on. They don't want to single out any one auto-maker, they said.

That probably comes as a relief to whomever made the car the researchers probed, as they found it pretty easy to hack.

"In starting this project we expected to spend significant effort reverse-engineering, with non-trivial effort to identify and exploit each subtle vulnerability," they write in their paper. "However, we found existing automotive systems—at least those we tested—to be tremendously fragile."

To hack the cars, they needed to learn about the Controller Area Network (CAN) system, mandated as a diagnostic tool for all U.S. cars built, starting in 2008. They developed a program called CarShark that listens in on CAN traffic as it's sent about the onboard network, and then built ways to add their own network packets.

Step-by-step, they figured out how to take over computer-controlled car systems: the radio, instrument panel, engine, brakes, heating and air conditioning, and even the body controller system, used to pop the trunk, open windows, lock doors and toot the horn.

They developed a lot of attacks using a technique called "fuzzing" -- where they simply spit a large number of random packets at a component and see what happens.

"The computer control is essential to a lot of the safety features that we depend on," Savage said. "When you expose those same computers to an attack, you can have very surprising results, such as you put your foot down on a brake pedal and it doesn't stop."

Another discovery: although industry standards say that onboard systems are supposed to be protected against unauthorized firmware updates, the researchers found that they could change the firmware on some systems without any sort of authentication.

In one attack that the researchers call "Self-destruct" they launch a 60 second countdown on the driver's dashboard that's accompanied by a clicking noise, and then finally warning honks in the final seconds. As the time hits zero, the car's engine is killed and the doors are locked. This attack takes less than 200 lines of code -- most of it devoted to keeping time during the countdown.

Hacking a car isn't for the faint-hearted. At several points the team worried it might have come close to permanently damaging the two identical-make cars it experimented with, but that never happened, Kohno said. "You really don't want software to accidentally change critical parts of the transmission," he said.

Robert McMillan can be reached at robert_mcmillan@idg.com. He is on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bobmcmillan

FREE Computerworld Insider Guide: IT Certification Study Tips
Editors' Picks
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies