Hackers’ next target could be your automobile

Here and Now

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You’ve got anti-virus software on your computer, and some people have started installing it on their phones, but is it time to start looking into anti-virus software for your car?

Don’t laugh. There are as many as 70 separate computers in modern automobiles with more being added every year. And now comes word that researchers at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Washington has found a way to hack into a car more than 1,000 miles away using nothing more complex than a computer and a cell phone.

But there’s some good news.

“We haven’t seen the first case of this out in the public just yet,” said Craig Trudell, a reporter for Bloomberg News who recently wrote a story about this issue.

But, Trudell said researchers used a relatively simple system in their tests. 

Students at one of the schools place a phone call to the telematics system of a car at the other university, hundreds of miles away, Trudell said. The telematics system is the software that allows for things like built-in calling and audio controls, for example that lowers the stereo volume when you get a call.

The students played a malicious message to the car and were then able to get GPS coordinates which they relayed to students at the other school. They were then able to unlock the car remotely and the students at the other school were able to climb in the car.

And there’s more bad news: Consumers don’t have a choice about whether there are computers in their car. According to Trudell, there are computer systems that are mandated by federal regulations and other systems that are needed to merely make the car operate.

“Your onboard diagnostic system is required, a regulation that has been in place since 1996,” he said.

There’s also what’s known as the controller area network, which allows, for example, your anti-lock brakes to communicate with other systems in the vehicle.

But there’s some hope. The U.S. Department of Transportation is looking for ways to strengthen the car security systems against attack. And the university research also caught the eye of the Society of Automotive Engineers, who’ve created a task force to study this issue and recommend best practices for the industry.

With more computer systems on the way, including ones that could allow communication between cars, everyone is eager to implement protections quickly.


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