Internet connected cars may pose huge security risk research finds

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. 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.

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.

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.

DOWNLOAD THE RESEARCH PAPER HERE.

Courtesy: Yahoo! News.

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