Car-hacking: Remote access and other security issues

It's not time for full-on panic, but researchers have already successfully applied brakes remotely, listened into conversations and more.

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Currently, the Internet is only a hypothetical vulnerability, however, says Roesner. "In the case of the car that we examined, we used the malicious file on a CD to exploit a vulnerability in the radio."

"In our research, we showed that attackers with access to the car's network can completely control most of the car's computerized components," she says. This could allow an attacker to sabotage an automobile -- disable the brakes or lights, for instance. "But we also showed that attackers could use such exploits to perform espionage," Roesner explains. Examples include the ability to extract potentially sensitive GPS data from a system and send it outside of the vehicle to an attacker. Also, a car could be stolen if the hacker can override the car's computerized theft detection/prevention system.

Automobiles most at risk include those with more components under computer control and without manual overrides, and those that are more connected to the outside world via the Internet or wirelessly, says Roesner.

Law enforcement fleet concerns

A security attack on a law enforcement fleet, in particular, may risk the lives of police officers as well as the general public. This issue raises concern at the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which in June fell victim to hackers who downloaded and released hundreds of law enforcement files on the Internet to protest a newly passed law they perceived as racist.

Hackers infiltrated accounts of Arizona law enforcement personnel and email accounts of the Arizona Legislature in a separate attack, posting items such as credit card information, photos, emails and documents including a master list of passwords and names and addresses of other police officers throughout the state of Arizona, according to Stacey Dillon, president of Public Safety Authority Media.

Extrapolating from there, she says, "If the hackers had accessed our fleets by, say hijacking our GPS system, it could present a lot of officer safety issues." In that scenario, police couldn't send backup units to the correct location if the GPS were compromised.

One safety check already in place: If a patrol car is idle or is stopped for 45 minutes to an hour, "an automatic signal is sent to our dispatchers and they're told to check on it," says Dillon.

Jaguar XJ Ultimate car
An Apple iPad is seen integrated into the Jaguar XJ Ultimate, the most luxurious Jaguar sedan ever made ($515,000), as shown in a Hong Kong showroom in May 2012. Some observers wonder if all that computer horsepower opens autos to malicious hacking. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

Rick Perine, vice president of the Mesa (Ariz.) Police Association, agrees that a hacker could stop police in their tracks. "We use a GPS map in our vehicles that's constantly updated," he explains. Among other things, "it relays to our dispatch where our patrol unit is, Hacking into our GPS could put me in the wrong part of town and another officer dispatched to a different part of town, which puts me in danger."

The use of an after-market product is the most likely way for a hacker to take over a vehicle fleet, says André Weimerskirch, CEO of Escrypt Inc., a provider of embedded security systems based in Ann Arbor, Mich. "If you own a business and you use after-market products to equip your fleet with GPS, for example, it's important to look at the details in terms of security."

After-market products work similarly to remote-control car engine starters marketed to consumers through retail stores, says Weimerskirch. "Remote control starters work by undermining the theft protection mechanism in the car. This opens the door for anyone to steal your car."

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