Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hacking Into Cars?

In Friday's blog, I discussed the some of the ways our computers are like cars. Well apparently there are also many ways in which our cars are like computers. For one thing, they can be hacked into.

Most cars made since the early to mid 1990s now have on-board diagnostic computer. University researchers, preparing a paper for the Internet security conference in Oakland next week, have discovered that it is possible to hack into these on-board computers. And what hackers can do upon gaining access to your car's computer is far more alarming than some annoying old spyware.

Researchers found that by hacking into a car's on-board diagnostic computer they were able to do things like turn off the breaks, control the speedometer read out and turn the air conditioning and radio off and on at will. They were also able to hack into the body controller system which is used to pop open the trunk, open windows and blow the horn. And they found that it was possible to lock the driver and passengers inside a car.

Many of the attacks developed by the researchers employed a technique known as "fuzzing," in which they merely launched random packets at a component to see what it would do.

This is perhaps another timely illustration of just how interwoven into our lives computers have become. While in the old days spies and mobsters would have to plant bombs or cut break lines in cars, in the future they could very well plant a small computer under the hood and do the dirty work that way.

Prank hackers could tune your radio to a country and western station, blast the volume, turn your heat all the way up and lock your windows. Or worse. . .

Thankfully the researchers said there is little risk for these kind of incidents at the moment. Such hacking requires a high degree of technical sophistication. Not only that but, in order to hack into and control a car, hackers would actually have to plant a computer on the car. However they did warn that manufacturers and shareholders should consider this risk in their future planning.

Stefan Savage, an associate professor at the University of California in San Diego, believes that, "This is an (automotive) industry issue." Adding that, "Computer control is essential to a lot of safety features that we depend on. When you expose those same computers to an attack, you can have very surprising results, such as you put your foot down on a brake pedal and it doesn't stop."

Does this mean that anti-virus and security software needs to become the latest security options available for new cars? When you consider the wireless and Internet enabled systems the auto industry is currently proposing for future model cars, the answer is, quite possibly yes.

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