3 important questions raised by Wired’s car hack

Connected Life

Wired.com broke a shocking but hardly surprising story on July 21st. The reporter was driving his Jeep on the highway when strange things started to happen. First the fan and radio went on and later the whole car came to a stop. On the highway! Andy Greenburg was not in control of the car anymore. It was controlled remotely by two hackers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, from miles away. They had not tampered with the car, and as a matter of fact never even touched it. All was done by connecting remotely to the vehicle and utilizing a vulnerability in its own software. A highway is not the safest place for this kind of demonstration so they continued with the brakes and steering manipulation in a parking place. Yes, that’s right. Brakes and steering!

Scary? Hell yes! This is a great demonstration of security issues with the Internet of Things trend (IoT).  Anything connected to the net can in theory be hacked and misused remotely. IoT is typically associated with “smart” appliances like toasters and fridges, but a car connected to the net is very much IoT as well. And a hacked car is a lot scarier than a hacked fridge. So let’s look at the tree fundamental questions this hack raises.

How can this be possible?

Car manufacturers were taken with their pants down. They have for decades been thinking deformation zones and airbags when you say security. Now they need to become aware of digital security too. I’m confident that they already have some level of awareness in this field, but the recent Jeep-incident shows that they still have a lot to learn. I’m not only thinking about preventing this from happening in the first place. No system is perfect, and they must also be able to deal with discovered vulnerabilities. A fix for the problem was created, but patching vehicles required a visit to the car dealer. Like taking your computer to the store to have Windows updates applied. No way! This underlines that digital security is about more than just design and quality control. It’s also about incident response and maintenance processes. Good morning car manufacturers and welcome to the world of digital security. You have a lot to learn.


Ok, it can be done, but why?

We are now at the “Wow! This is really possible!” –stage. The next stage will be “Ok, but how can this be utilized?” There’s a lot of headlines about how we could be killed by hacked cars. That may be technically possible, but has so far never happened. Hackers and virus writers used to work out of curiosity and do pranks just because it was possible. But that was in the eighties and nineties. Earning money and collecting information are the motives for today’s cyber criminals and spies. Killing you by driving your car off a cliff will not support either of those objectives, but it does make juicy headlines. Locking your car and asking for a ransom to unlock it is however a plausible scenario. Turning on the hands-free microphone to spy on your conversations is another. Or just unlocking it so that it can be stolen. Anyway, the moral of the story is that scary headlines about what car hackers can do are mostly hype. The threat will look very different when or if it becomes reality in the future. Let’s just hope that the car manufacturers get their act together before this becomes a real problem.


Should I be worried?

No. Not unless your job is to design software for vehicles. The current headlines are very important wake-up calls for the car industry, but have very little impact on ordinary consumers. Some early incidents, like this Jeep case, will be handled by calling cars to the dealer for an update. But it is clear that this isn’t a sustainable process in the long run. Cars are like appliances, any update process must be fully automatic. And the update process must be much faster than applying the latest software once a year when the car is in for routine maintenance. So any car hooked up to the net also needs an automatic update process.

But what about the hackers driving me off a cliff? You said it could be possible, and I don’t want to die. First, does anyone have a motive to kill you? Luckily most of us don’t have that kind of enemies. But more important. Doing that may or may not be possible. Car manufacturers may be inexperienced with hacking and IT security, but they understand that any technical system can fail. This is why cars are built with safeguards at the hardware level. The Jeep-hackers could steer the car remotely, but only at low speed. This is natural as the electronically controlled steering is needed for parking assistance, not for highway cruising. Disabling this feature above a certain speed threshold makes perfect sense from safety perspective. But, on the other hand. I can think of several scenarios that could be lethal despite low speed. And the hackers could fool the speedometer to show the wrong speed. What if they can feed an incorrect speed reading into the system that turns off electronic steering? Ok, never say never. But hiring a traditional contract killer is still a better option if someone want’s you gone.

And there’s naturally no safeguards between software and hardware when the self-driving cars take over. Widespread self-driving cars are still sci-fi, and hacking them is even further away. But we are clearly on a path that leads in that direction. A few wrong turns and we may end up with that problem becoming reality. The good news is on the other hand that all publicity today contribute to improved digital security awareness among vehicle manufacturers.

But finally back to today’s reality. It is still a lot more likely for you to be killed by a falling meteorite than by a hacker taking over your car. Not to talk about all the ordinary traffic accidents!


Safe cruising,




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