Hackers break into cars, steer them with old game controllers
Cybersecurity researchers reveal stunning vulnerability of the automobile
OTTAWA — In front of a packed room of some of the brightest hackers on the planet, security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek plan to show the world how to remotely control a vehicle with a 1980s Nintendo gaming system controller.
The pair, who take to the stage at Def Con in Las Vegas on Aug. 2, received an $80,000 grant from the United States Defence Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to test the security of automobile computer systems and find vulnerabilities.
What they found is that modern cars are so insecure that a person can literally steer them with a video game controller.
Using a 2010 Toyota Prius and a 2010 Ford Escape, Miller and Valasek broke into the cars steer them, disabled their brakes, changed speeds and even drive the vehicles using the Nintendo joystick.
Their talk at the world’s largest hacker conference is called Adventures in Automobile Networks and Control Units. It will layout how to compromise the security systems employed by modern vehicle manufacturers and gain access to what are called “controller area networks”, the network of sensors that control acceleration, braking, steering, monitor fluid levels and tire pressure, as well as hundreds of other functions.
Miller, who is a former National Security Agency (NSA) hacker and is now a security engineer with the social media site Twitter, said the research was focused on understanding the sensors in an automobile and how those sensors could be manipulated.
By plugging into the automobile’s On-board Diagnostics (OBD) jack, used by mechanics to diagnose mechanical issues, the pair was able to send signals from a laptop to sensors and control systems all over the car. The pair required access to the OBD to gain remote control of the automobile, but security experts believe that attacks in the near future will be done without the need to plug into the car directly.
“Cars now are basically computers. They have computers that run your entertainment system, control your steering, your fuel intake and you have tiny sensors in your tires that give off signals. Not to mention that most cars are Bluetooth enabled and many luxury cars coming out now have Wi-Fi hot spots,” said Tom Kellerman, vice-president of cyber-security at Trend Micro and former commissioner of U.S. President Barack Obama’s cybersecurity council. “All of these things make cars susceptible to being hacked and certain overrides can be performed. This poses a serious dilemma if you think about people being targeted by nefarious individuals or organized crime, or even nation state activity.”
Kellermann pointed to features such as automatic parallel parking, which takes away control of the vehicle from the driver and allows the computer to park the car. Automatic parallel parking is a perfect example of how the car’s computer can be used to control the steering, acceleration and braking systems of a car, autonomously.
Information sent wirelessly from vehicles is also being used by telematics companies, some of which are being employed by insurance companies to monitor drivers and their driving habits, as well as companies specializing in logistics. Using the information, these watchers can determine the location of a vehicle, its speed and acceleration, fuel consumption and even idling time. Some of the vehicles can even be disabled remotely.
“Really, the carmakers need to spend more time trying to secure these vehicles rather than opening them up to the next bell and whistle, because the next bell and whistle could be someone else controlling your car while you are driving it,” Kellerman said.
Aside from vehicle manufacturers, companies who specialize in automobile operating systems are also scrambling to maintain the security of their software. While Microsoft Corp. is responsible for most of the operating systems in Ford vehicles, Ottawa’s QNX Software Systems Inc., which is owned by BlackBerry, has operating systems installed in more than 20 million vehicles globally, making its software the biggest in-car target for hackers.
QNX software is in vehicles made by Toyota, Audi, Honda, BMW and Porsche, among others.
In the past, David Odell, a security researcher with Fishnet Security, has pointed at QNX’s market dominance and outlined potential exploits that could be used by hackers to gain access to QNX software, and urged the company to better secure its offerings.
“In the future, as more cars are connected to the Internet, this will become more serious. As QNX is developing their QNXCar platform, we can expect to see this type of technology deployed in many more vehicles, and vehicular security will become much more significant,” Odell wrote in a blog post in 2012 titled “Pentesting QNX Neutrino RTOS”
Paul Leroux, corporate spokesman, QNX Software Systems, said the company takes security seriously and is constantly working to safeguard its software offerings.
“Hacking is top of mind in all the industries that QNX serves, including automotive,” he said. “Our customers take the threat seriously, as do we, and we provide guidance to help ensure their systems are properly designed and protected against potential exploits.”
While Miller and Valasek say learning how to control the vehicle’s internal networks was only the first step.
In a blog post about their upcoming presentation, Valasek said compromising a vehicle remotely is the easy part.
“We wanted to remind everyone that although we did not focus on remote attack vectors, intricate knowledge of a car’s internals ... would be necessary after remotely compromising the vehicle for any amount of control (steering, braking, acceleration, etc.),” he wrote.
Christine Hollander, a spokeswoman for Ford Canada, disagreed, saying the research was conducted through incredibly “aggressive” techniques that took a considerable amount of time for the researchers to complete. She said Ford takes automobile safety seriously and is constantly updating safety and security protocols to keep its drivers safe.
“This particular attack was not performed remotely over-the-air, but as a highly aggressive direct physical manipulation of one vehicle over an elongated period of time, which would not be a risk to customers at any mass level,” she said. “Ford is taking vehicle electronic security seriously and investing in solutions that are built into the product from the outset. The safety, privacy, and security of our customers is and always will be paramount.”
Transport Canada, the federal regulator responsible for ensuring automobile safety, said the threat automobile hacking could pose to drivers have forced it to begin looking at ways to ensure car computer systems are better secured.
“As vehicles are becoming increasingly automated, it is imperative that automated vehicles and future ‘connected vehicles’ be resistant to such cyber-tampering,” said Maryse Durette, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada. “The U.S. Government has created a new Electronics Systems Safety Research Division to develop requirements to ensure that electronic control systems in vehicles cannot be compromised. Transport Canada works with its U.S. counterpart in assessing and addressing these risks on a going forward basis.”
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