Engadget is reporting that a team of researchers have discovered a way to hack the onboard computer of certain cars. Once the hackers are in, they can access the car’s computer wirelessly, even while driving in another car next to the hacked vehicle. They can then affect the car by turning on hazard lights, flashing the brights, and even rolling down the windows. Or they could disable the brakes and lock the engine while you are driving at speed, sending you to a horrible death.
In our increasingly digital world, fear of the hacker has become all encompassing, one that acts as justification for the overreactions of many. Yes, malicious hackers are a problem- a nuisance to some, a criminal threat to others- but hackers are not magic. They can’t destroy cities (looking at you Live Free or Die Hard)- if they could, someone would have done it, then posted online how they just pwned a city. For the most part, hackers are just people that are curious to see how much they can get away with. It is a challenge to break the code of something- and the vast majority of hacks are harmless, and don’t really have any negative effects. Many are even useful and designed to test security, in the same way someone might push a door to make sure it is sound. And then there are some hacks that can scare the crap out of you.
The university researchers were testing to see how tight security of computers inside of cars are, and the answer is that there is hardly any security at all. The researchers needed to have a physical connection to initially access the car’s Engine Control Unit (ECU). Once they do have that access, they can control the entire operations of the car wirelessly, and tell the car to ignore the driver’s input.
For the test, researchers were able to connect wirelessly to a car’s ECU, and disable the brakes while it was driving. The test also proved that they could seize the engine, and even brake certain wheels, which would send the car sliding before potentially flipping over.
The test concluded that the security of ECUs is essentially nonexistent. If someone can gain access, you are in trouble. The good news is that the person hacking the ECU would need physical access to the car’s computer, so in that sense the security needed is the same as preventing car theft.