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White Hats Warn of Cyber Carjackings


Whether it’s integrating a sleek infotainment system with a touchscreen display, emergency services, or an automated system that will drive your car for you, the automotive industry is continuing its push toward smarter, integrated vehicles. But at what cost might that come?

Some have worried that as we allow computers to expand its connections to touch vital systems of the car—from steering to the brakes—we could be in danger of finding that as we cruise down the highway, someone outside of the car has managed to take the wheel. And this is just the fear that security experts and  “white hat” hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek of IOActive are discussing today at the Defcon 21 conference in Las Vegas.

As white hats, Miller and Valasek probe systems for vulnerabilities before showing their results to the product’s vendors so that they might address the issue before malicious black hat hackers beat them to it.

And according to a Reuters report, they’ve done it. During their tests, Miller and Valasek were able to force a Prius that was cruising along at 80 mph to brake suddenly, accelerate, and even jerk the steering wheel. What’s potentially more frightening is that the team claims that when they went to work on a Ford Escape, they were able to disable the brakes such that the car would continue to accelerate even if the driver were to stand on the brakes.

Of course, it’s important to note that in this case, the team’s remote control wasn’t actually that remote. In fact, the two white hats were in the vehicles in question, and using laptops that were directly connected to the car to tap into the vehicle’s electronic systems.

According to IOActive’s summary of today’s talk, the team is specifically targeting cars’ Electronic Control Units, which were designed to monitor fuel efficiency and regulate emissions. But at this point the system has evolved into a more sophisticated network or nervous system of sorts, controlling everything from infotainment to safety and “enhanced automotive functionality.”

During their session, the experts plan to:

“...first cover the requisite tools and software needed to analyze a Controller Area Network (CAN) bus. Secondly, we will demo software to show how data can be read and written to the CAN bus. Then we will show how certain proprietary messages can be replayed by a device hooked up to an ODB-II connection to perform critical car functionality, such as braking and steering. Finally, we’ll discuss aspects of reading and modifying the firmware of ECUs installed in today’s modern automobile.”

For automakers, news like this presents them with a dilemma. On the one hand, the trend is to deliver integrated options and functionality. But this happens to be just the sort of efforts that make it easier for white hats and black hats alike to wreak havoc on our highways.

As car executives have already explained, the key to connected cars is segregating mission-critical systems (brakes, steering, power train) from infotainment. Because after all, while you may not want to get Rick-rolled in your own car, it beats having a hacker roll your car over.

At today’s session, Miller and Valasek may answer the question of whether or not such compartmentalization will be enough. They also plan to publish the details of their work on the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. government, in a 100-page white paper.

What you won’t see from today’s session is more information about remote wireless hacking, which is precisely what black hats would need to launch an actual attack. Instead, the team says that they are hoping to motivate other white hats to uncover additional security flaws. Hopefully with these efforts, plus the details laid out in the white paper, automakers will finally be able to wall off their cars’ critical systems—and the black hats—for good.

Toyota Motor Corp spokesman John Hanson already said that the company has been reviewing Miller and Valasek’s work. He said that the company has invested heavily in electronic security, but that there are bugs remaining—as is the case for other automakers.

“It’s entirely possible to do,” Hanson said in reference to the hacks. “Absolutely we take it seriously.”

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