Hacking a Car Comes Alive

Tuesday, August 6, 2013 @ 06:08 PM gHale

Yes, it is possible to hack into car computers and take over the steering, acceleration, brakes, and other important functions.

At least that is what two security researchers showed at Defcon 21 in Las Vegas Friday.

Charlie Miller, a security engineer at Twitter, and Chris Valasek, director of security intelligence at IOActive, spent ten months researching how they could hack into the network of embedded computer systems called electronic control units (ECUs) used in today’s cars and see what they could do once they gained access to it.

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Their test cars were a 2010 Ford Escape and a 2010 Toyota Prius.

Some of the things they were able to achieve by hooking a laptop to the ECU communications network and injecting rogue signals into it included disabling the breaks while the car was in motion, jerking the steering wheel, accelerating, killing the engine, yanking the seat belt, displaying bogus speedometer and fuel gauge readings, turning on and off the car’s lights, and blasting the horn.

The researchers also found a way to achieve persistent attacks by modifying the ECU firmware to send rogue signals even when there was no longer a physical connection to the control units.

A research paper explaining how they were able to hack in went out to Ford and Toyota a few weeks before the Defcon presentation, the researchers said.

Toyota said it didn’t consider this to be car hacking and the company’s security efforts focus on preventing remote attacks from outside the car, not those that involve physically accessing the control system, Miller and Valasek said.

The goal of the research was to see what could happen when hackers gain access to the ECU network, known as the controller area network bus, the researchers said. It doesn’t matter if it happens locally or remotely; access to a single ECU provides access to the whole network and gives the ability to inject commands, they said.

Miller is certain other researchers will find ways to remotely attack the systems in the future. The software industry hasn’t figured out how to write secure software yet, so there’s no reason to believe car makers have figured it out either, he said.

The code in systems that can have remote access — telematics units, tire sensors, those using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi — might have a lot of vulnerabilities, he said.

That’s part of the reason Miller and Valasek decided to make the details of their research public, including what kind of equipment, cables, and software they used.

The full research paper and the custom software tools written to interact with the ECUs, as well as the code used to inject particular commands, will release soon, Miller said.

Concerns that the tools could enable people to hack car systems for malicious purposes are valid, the researcher said. However, if it’s that easy to do, then they could do it anyway; it would just take them a bit more time, he said.

Fixing the issues won’t be easy because most of them are there by design, Miller said.

Car manufacturers won’t be able to just issue a patch, the researcher said.

Toyota Motor Sales and Ford Motor Co. in the U.S. did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

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