19 April, 2016

Hacking Cars: Scare Journalism or Legitimate Threat?

If you believed that it was difficult to break into a cars security system; think again. In February last year a 14 year old, with hardware he bought with his pocket money, was able to hack into a car to take control of its radio, wipers and lights in a competition run by the research and development organisation Batelle. This raises the serious question: how secure are cars from cyber threats?

With the current trends in car technology it seems that almost all cars in the near future will be fitted with touch pad interfaces, autonomous technology and wireless connectivity. This will open up the possibility for more vehicles to be hacked with more functions that can be manipulated and a greater ease of accessing the car’s computer systems. With wireless internet connectivity cars could be easily hacked into, including from handheld devices.

In July 2015 the print and online magazine WIRED produced an article on the modern car’s cyber security. Two computer scientists, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, were able to hack into a car 10 miles away while sitting at home. This was not the first time they had hacked into the Jeep Cherokee, a year before the pair were breaking into the computers computer system and taking control of the cars functions while sitting in the back seat.

This highlighted not only the security flaws that ‘new-age’ cars had from theft, but also emphasised the potential danger that hackers could inflict upon drivers. Imagine driving along a motorway and suddenly the brakes and handbrake stopped working but the accelerator kept going without your control. It’s a scary scenario. As cars become more automated, such as the new Tesla Model 3, the opportunity to hack into cars becomes more present, with the same vulnerabilities as any personal electronic device.

However, not everyone is alarmed by the cyber security on modern cars. In response to WIRED magazine’s article it was pointed out by Scientific American that Miller and Valasek had only attempted to hack into their own car and it took them over a year to do so. Every model of car is different, so the inbuilt computer system and language it uses will differ from car to car. Plus the equipment required and expertise to gain this level of control over the car is outside the ability of most criminals. For the time being the only people hacking into cars will only likely be developers testing their own security flaws, such as Matthew Solnik (below), on behalf of the car manufacturers.

There are ways to ensure that hackers do not prey upon you and your vehicle. Car manufacturers are becoming increasingly aware of the threat of hacking and they are regularly updating their software to combat this. Ensure that you speak to a representative from the manufacturer to certify that you have the up-to-date protection for your car. For more tips see Norton by Symantec’s own recommendations.

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