Securing Automobile Software Updates

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 @ 02:10 PM gHale


A driver pushes the button and control units download the car manufacturer’s new software – such as enhanced map material for the navigation system.

Just to ensure this data channel remains protected from hacker attack, the system needs the right cryptographic key. To date, these keys have stored in each one of a vehicle’s electronic control units.

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Through a new form of trust anchor, this will become simpler and more economical.

Imagine for one moment if you live in Germany and you want to take a few days of vacation in the French Alps. You booked the hotel, but to find it without having to go through road maps in hard copy, you will have to retrofit the navigation system with French maps. To accomplish this, you either have to take a trip to the garage before setting out on the long journey, or you must obtain a CD with the appropriate data.

The navigation system of the future however will download updates by itself at the driver’s instruction. If the driver launches the program, the system returns numerous security questions – this is the only way to protect data transfer from hackers. Up until now, manufacturers stored cryptographic keys on every device that downloads manufacturer updates or communicates with other control units. If a device requests an update, first it must use the right key to prove it is entitled to receive one.

This is just one example of an application in which cryptography plays a decisive role in providing in-car protection. It is also the reason carmakers need to safely store numerous cryptographic keys in a vehicle‘s electronic control units.

There is now a secure but economical method that accomplishes this, said researchers at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Applied and Integrated Security AISEC in Garching near Munich, Germany.

“We have developed a trust anchor – a device that securely stores cryptographic keys. Control units can use these keys, whether to request manufacturer updates or to communicate with one another,” said Alexander Kiening, a researcher at AISEC.

If a driver wants new map material for his or her navigation system, for instance, the system retrieves the key it needs from the central trust anchor. To do so, first it has to authenticate itself by demonstrating the request really is coming from the navigation system; then it must prove no one or manipulated it.

To accomplish this, the trust anchor checks whether the software in the device matches the valid version. If this query is successful, the navigation system receives the key it can then use to establish a secure virtual private network data channel to the manufacturer. It then downloads the desired software through this channel. Once this is complete, the updated device informs the trust anchor of a successful modification to the software.

The project is part of the group research project “Security in Embedded IP-based Systems (SEIS)” initiated by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Researchers have already developed a first demonstrator model in collaboration with Infineon, Continental and the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Communication Systems ESK.



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