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High-tech threat: Hackers in your car?

2014-11-25 11:56

IS YOUR CAR SAFE?: As internet connectivity in cars become the norm vehicles could are becoming increasingly vulnerable to hackers. Image: AFP

JUSTIN PRITCHARD

LOS ANGELES, California - Despite automakers best efforts against a team of hackers vehicles stand no chance. A test by a team of hackers, working with the US military and auto industry, revealed the dangers of cyber terrorism.

Meticulously overwhelming computer networks, hackers showed that, given time, they would be able to pop the boot, cut the brakes or lock them up, and even kill the engine.

The hackers hope to eventually fortify the cyber defences of commercially available cars before criminals and even terrorists penetrate them.

'ROLLING COMPUTER'

Chris Valasek helped catapult car-hacking into the public eye when in 2013, he and a partner were able to control a 2010 Toyota Prius and 2010 Ford Escape by plugging into a port used by mechanics.

Valasek said: "You're stepping into a rolling computer now."

Valasek works for a computer security firm and is testing whether Bluetooth connectivity might offer an entry point for hackers.

Automakers are betting heavily that consumers will want internet-enabled vehicles capable of streaming movies and turning dictation into email. The US government wants to require cars to send each other electronic messages warning of dangers on the road.

In these and other connections, hackers see opportunity.

CONTROLLING CARS?

There is no publicly known instance of a car being commandeered outside staged tests and in those, hackers prevail.

One was the US Defence Department-funded assault on a 2012 model American-made car, overseen by computer scientist Kathleen Fisher, in which hackers demonstrated they could create the electronic equivalent of a skeleton key to unlock the car's networks.

That may take months, Fisher said, but from there it would be "pretty easy to package up the smarts and make it available online, perhaps in a black-market type situation”.

The project's goal is more than just to plug vulnerabilities - it is to re-conceive the most critical lines of computer code that control the car in a way that could make them invulnerable to some of the major known threats. The model code would be distributed to automakers, who could adapt it to their needs.

That should take a few more years but the industry is participating - not waiting.

WHAT'S BEING DONE?

One major association representing brands, among them Honda and Toyota, is helping to establish an "information-sharing and analysis centre" patterned after efforts by big banks to try to thwart cyber attacks.

Michael Cammisa, director of safety for the Association of Global Automakers, said: "Before, when you designed something, you looked at how might components fail. Now you have to look at how would somebody maliciously attack the vehicle."    

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