Fasten your seatbelts: Car hacking

While not a pressing problem at the moment, the hacking of on-board car networks could soon prove dangerous. Alan Earls reports.

Fasten your seatbelts: Car hacking
Fasten your seatbelts: Car hacking

In parallel with all the recent optimistic chatter about the future of self-driving cars, a number of stories have highlighted the downside of all this built-in automotive smarts. Namely, the growing danger of car hacking – the hijacking of the wide-ranging networks, sensors and computers that make modern cars go. In one particularly dramatic scenario, Lesley Stahl, a correspondent for CBS News' 60 Minutes, participated in a frightening drive in a test car as a hacker demonstrated on camera his ability to disable or take control of multiple systems, including brakes.

To date, actual hacks of vehicle systems seem to be unknown or at least unreported. However, many experts agree there are worrisome vulnerabilities which could be particularly enticing targets for individuals intent on causing harm.

Partly defined by on-board diagnostics specifications in OBD-II, and partly defined by individual brands and component manufacturers, over the past decade, cars have quickly become “rolling networks,” says Todd Inskeep (left), a 20-year information security veteran and advisory board member for the RSA Conference.

A controller area network (CAN bus) is a vehicle bus standard designed to allow microcontrollers and devices to communicate with each other in applications without a host computer. 

For example, most recent car systems are equipped with a controller area network (CAN bus), which enables microcontrollers and devices to “talk” to each other in applications without a host computer. It is a message-based protocol, designed originally for automotive applications but with no inherent security provisions.

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