Car viruses? Intel aims to protect drivers from hackers

By on August 21, 2012, 3:30 PM

As high-technology continues to creep into horseless carriages everywhere, there's one thing we can all count on: abuse of that technology. According to Reuters, Intel's "top hackers" are on the case though, poring over the software which powers the fanciest of automobile technology in hopes of discovering (and dashing) various bugs and exploits.

Except under the most specific of scenarios, the damaging results from an attack against an unsuspecting user's personal computer are often limited. Hackers may be able to cripple a computer, invade a user's privacy or even steal someone's identity. Causing personal injury or death though, is typically out of the question. However, with an increasing amount of technology and software proliferating modern vehicles, this could all change. 

"You can definitely kill people," asserts John Bumgarner, CTO of a non-profit which calls itself the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit.

As outlined in the following publication, Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile (pdf), researchers have already shown that a clever virus is capable of releasing or engaging brakes on a whim, even at high speeds. Such harrowing maneuvers could potentially extinguish the lives of both its occupants and others involved in the resulting accident. On certain vehicles, researchers were also able to lock and unlock doors, start and disable the engine and toggle the headlights off and on.

Ford spokesman Alan Hall assures us, "Ford is taking the threat very seriously and investing in security solutions that are built into the product from the outset". Ford has been an industry leader in adopting advanced automotive technologies.

Thus far, there have been no reported incidents of injury or death caused by automobile hacking. That's according to SAE International, a major standards committee for automotive and aerospace industries.

When asked by Reuters whether or not there had been any such reports, most manufacturers declined to comment. However, McAfee executive Bruce Snell claims that automakers are still very concerned about it. Snell admits, "I don't think people need to panic now. But the future is really scary." McAfee, which is now owned by Intel, is the division of Intel investigating automobile cyber security.

For more details regarding the state of technology in automobiles and what researchers have found so far, readers can check out this FAQ.




User Comments: 12

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davislane1 davislane1 said:

Was talking to a mechanic about this just last year. Had to get a new transmission put in the family car because a sensor went bad & the computer arbitrarily decided to throw the transmission into reverse while I was driving down the expressway. With the amount of computer controlled systems in new & upcoming autos (esp. with German cars), it's only a matter of time before bugs & malicious code start wreaking their havoc on commuters.

Guest said:

This is why computers need to stay out of cars aside from navigation and stereo systems.

Regardless though I doubt it would be easy to hack a car since its not connected to any networks, they shouldn't let computers control critical aspects of vehicles like brakes anyway what if they malfunction?

davislane1 davislane1 said:

Most aren't, but that's slowly changing. A lot of luxury brands offer in-car hotspots and remote access features (such as locking/unlocking & starting your car from your phone or computer) as options in their sedans & SUVs. Only a matter of time before it becomes a standard feature in that segment and an option in economy cars. And, really, you don't even need that. Just slip a bug into the computer at the shop & you could infect any car they run a diagnostic on.

As for potential malfunctions... There aren't enough (yet) to cause them to rethink computerizing these vehicles. Stuff like drive select, pre-safe breaking, and adaptive cruise control sell well at the moment. Until major problems start popping up with those systems & it generates bad PR, they're just going to keep layering on the tech.

slh28 slh28, TechSpot Paladin, said:

I'm a lot more worried about this: [link]

Criminals only hack things when there's financial gain, I doubt people are twisted enough to crash cars into each other and kill people just for the fun of it. It's not like you keep your credit card info stored on the car computer although I can imagine a situation where a spammer redirects a person's satnav to his store or something.

davislane1 davislane1 said:

I don't think they'd go as far as trying to kill people, but I doubt hacktivist groups and other like-minded individuals would have many qualms with inconveniencing people they don't approve of. Altering a few lines of code in the computer can easily render most newer vehicles inoperable (disabling the electronic column shifter in a CL, for instance).

But, like you mentioned, theft is the bigger issue. Certainly a lot more money to be made thieving expensive cars than messing with their owners. ...Unless you're the dealer, that is :P

psycros psycros said:

I'm a lot more worried about this: [link]

Criminals only hack things when there's financial gain, I doubt people are twisted enough to crash cars into each other and kill people just for the fun of it. It's not like you keep your credit card info stored on the car computer although I can imagine a situation where a spammer redirects a person's satnav to his store or something.

Seriously? Ever heard of a crime of passion? Of revenge? How about car bombs? Imagine if you could just stick a little bluetooth-laden package under any vehicle and set it off later via the car's built in radio.

davislane1 davislane1 said:

I'm a lot more worried about this: [link]

Criminals only hack things when there's financial gain, I doubt people are twisted enough to crash cars into each other and kill people just for the fun of it. It's not like you keep your credit card info stored on the car computer although I can imagine a situation where a spammer redirects a person's satnav to his store or something.

Seriously? Ever heard of a crime of passion? Of revenge? How about car bombs? Imagine if you could just stick a little bluetooth-laden package under any vehicle and set it off later via the car's built in radio.

They've been able to do that since the early 1900s...

Camikazi said:

Most aren't, but that's slowly changing. A lot of luxury brands offer in-car hotspots and remote access features (such as locking/unlocking & starting your car from your phone or computer) as options in their sedans & SUVs. Only a matter of time before it becomes a standard feature in that segment and an option in economy cars. And, really, you don't even need that. Just slip a bug into the computer at the shop & you could infect any car they run a diagnostic on.

As for potential malfunctions... There aren't enough (yet) to cause them to rethink computerizing these vehicles. Stuff like drive select, pre-safe breaking, and adaptive cruise control sell well at the moment. Until major problems start popping up with those systems & it generates bad PR, they're just going to keep layering on the tech.

Wasn't some car company thinking of making OTA firmware updates to the cars computer standard on their cars? I am sure if that is possible hacking the car to upload your own firmware would be possible as well.

Guest said:

now, it's time for car owner installing antivirus software to their cars :D

Guest said:

..also firewall

Zoltan Head said:

Wow, this is scary, introducing vulnerabilities into the control systems - what if the military or NASA did the unthinkable and used computer systems to control aircraft, spacecraft or missiles, the consequences could be horrific!

davislane1 davislane1 said:

Wasn't some car company thinking of making OTA firmware updates to the cars computer standard on their cars? I am sure if that is possible hacking the car to upload your own firmware would be possible as well.

Mbrace2 by Mercedes-Benz [link]. I believe Ford also has something similar, sans a few bells and whistles that MB includes in their package.

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