Skip to main content

Worried about car hacking? FBI and DOT offer safety tips

2015 Jeep Cherokee
Image used with permission by copyright holder
The proliferation of computer-controlled systems and connectivity features in modern cars means they are almost like rolling smartphones. And like smartphones, that means they may be vulnerable to hacking. Demonstrations by security researchers, including highly publicized hack of a Jeep Cherokee last year, have made “car hacking” a major concern.

The issue is now on the government’s radar. The FBI and Department of Transportation (DOT) recently published a list of car hacking safety tips, with basic information about how to prevent hacks, and what do if you suspect your vehicle may be vulnerable.

Cars have become increasingly susceptible to hacking as automakers add connectivity features that make wireless access to a vehicle’s systems easier, and blur the line between controls for secondary functions like climate control or navigation, and mechanical components like the brakes and throttle. Manufacturers try to limit these interactions, but increasingly-complex systems give hackers more opportunities to breach security features.

It all comes down to software, so protecting your vehicle can be a lot like protecting your phone or computer. The FBI and DOT advise owners to ensure their vehicle software is up to date and any security updates have been downloaded. But be wary of fake emails containing “security updates” that may actually give hackers access to a vehicle, the agencies say. Always verify recall notices, never download software from a third-party website and, when in doubt, get the dealer to perform updates.

Vehicle owners should also be wary of any third-party software, the agencies say. Aftermarket software is often used to increase the performance of engines and for other tuning tricks, and there are now a host of devices designed to plug into a car’s diagnostic port (called an OBD II port) to monitor performance or send data to insurance companies. Every time third-party software interfaces with a vehicle, it presents an opportunity for a systems breach, the FBI and DOT note.

And just as you wouldn’t leave your computer or phone unlocked around strangers, it’s not a good idea to give them access to your car. Physical access makes it much easier for hackers to tamper with a car’s systems, and it’s not like making it easy for people you don’t trust to have access to your car was ever a good idea in the first place.

The prescription for dealing with a potentially hacked vehicle actually isn’t too different from mechanical defects or malfunctions. The government recommends first checking if there are any outstanding recalls or software updates, and then contacting the manufacturer or a dealer to diagnose any unresolved problems.

Owners can also file a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is in charge of recalls, or the FBI, or contact an FBI field office directly.

Editors' Recommendations

Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
Daimler is taking a ‘reality check’ on self-driving cars over safety challenges

Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler has taken a "reality check" on self-driving cars. Making autonomous vehicles safe has proven harder than originally thought, and Daimler is now questioning their future earnings potential, CEO Ola Kaellenius told Reuters and other media.

Daimler is one of several automakers and tech companies racing to deploy self-driving cars on a commercial scale. It's become conventional wisdom in the auto industry that self-driving cars deployed in ridesharing services will provide safer, more efficient transportation -- while also earning hefty profits for the companies making and operating the vehicles. But Kaellenius sees some roadblocks.

Read more
Toyota is about to unveil a race car-like Supra concept inspired by the 1990s
toyota supra 3000 gt concept announced for 2019 sema show trd 3000gt

GR SUPRA 3000GT Concept

The born-again Toyota Supra will be one of the stars of the upcoming SEMA show, an annual event dedicated to tuners and aftermarket parts. The model has always played a starring role in the event due to its godlike status with the tuning crowd, so Toyota will ensure the fifth generation of the nameplate unveiled earlier in 2019 makes a star-studded SEMA debut by introducing a concept car called the Supra 3000GT.

Read more
Toyota has a new electric car for you — and it’s about the size of a golf cart
toyota ultra compact electric car 2019 tokyo motor show bev

At what point does a car become so small that it's not really a car anymore? Toyota is pushing that boundary with its latest electric car. Set to debut at the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota's Ultra-Compact BEV (for "battery electric vehicle") is so small that it's practically a golf cart.

The two-seat Ultra-Compact BEV was designed for drivers who primarily make short-distance trips, according to Toyota. The target market includes the elderly, newly licensed drivers, or businesspeople visiting local customers, the automaker explained in a press release. The vehicle has a maximum range of 100 kilometers (62 miles) per charge, and a top speed of just 60 kph (37.2 mph).

Read more