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Autonomous Cars Must Be Secure to Be Safe

All of the airbags and crumple zones in the world won't help if hackers can take control of self-driving cars. What can manufacturers do to keep these next-generation vehicles secure and safe?

Michael Lynch

June 13, 2017

3 Min Read

Once a concept that existed solely in the realm of science fiction, self-driving cars are fast becoming reality. A report by Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2030, computer-controlled vehicles will make up 60% of US auto sales.

The past decade has seen a tremendous push by both car manufacturers and technology firms to transform cars into Internet-connected computers on wheels. According to a report from Navigant Research, Ford leads the pack with GM and Renault-Nissan following behind. Daimler, Waymo (owned by Google), Volkswagen, Tesla and Uber are also all in the hunt.

But, given these computers are going to control the operations of multi-ton vehicles that travel at high rates of speed across tremendous distances, it's worth asking: Are they safe?

With a number of automakers ramping up testing in 2017 and into 2018, the hope is that securing these vehicles is as much a priority as innovation and competition. But some recent tests are troubling.

A test by Kaspersky Lab on nine different Internet-enabled cars, which can be located, unlocked and started by their downloadable Android apps, found the programs lacked even basic software defenses. Without this protection in place, users' devices can be hijacked by hackers to locate and steal the vehicle.

Another example was a test where a Wired Magazine correspondent in a moving Jeep Cherokee had the vehicle manipulated by two test "hackers" who intentionally took over the control of the vehicle's dashboard, steering, brakes and transmission using a laptop located miles away to demonstrate how this could be done.

While these are simply tests, it's imperative to get the security right on these vehicles before they achieve widespread adoption. To prevent someone with malicious intent from gaining operational control over a self-driving car via a mobile phone, laptop, iPad or other device, or even to prevent the theft of the actual car, authenticating that the person trying to access the vehicle is who they say they are is critical.

The good news is auto and technology companies are taking steps to enhance the security of self-driving cars. Both Toyota and Ford are reported to be incorporating biometric authentication into their respective fleet by developing fingerprint sensors to function in place of the ignition key in future vehicles. Other companies are exploring the use of iris scan authentication using the car's rear-view mirror.

Such systems could potentially provide some protection against car theft or system breach. However, security authentication best practices dictate the use of multiple authentication factors and "defense in depth."

It will be interesting to see how multi-factor authentication (MFA) evolves in the automobile industry, and whether before someone is authorized to operate a vehicle, they must present a combination of multiple attributes -- either something they know (for example, a password), something in their possession (a particular, uniquely identifiable device like a mobile phone) or something intrinsic to their person (such as a fingerprint or voice biometric). Once a combination of these attributes is presented and verified, the person is then cleared to operate vehicle.

Further, defenses are necessary to potentially block unauthorized access to the operating system of the car itself. To protect against security threats and malicious attacks mentioned previously, self-driving cars are going to need to evaluate the trustworthiness of any person or device requesting operational control of the vehicle's operating system, and employ standard defenses against hacking, malware and unauthorized access.

All best practices in cyberdefense and authentication should be considered, since Internet-connected vehicles have a large attack surface with numerous vulnerabilities. Given the potential consequences, it's crucial to get security right on self-driving vehicles before they can become a plausible reality.

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— Michael Lynch is InAuth's Chief Strategy Officer and is responsible for developing and leading the company's new products strategy, as well as developing key US and international partnerships. He brings two decades of experience in key roles within financial services, consulting and Fortune 500 companies, specializing in security and technology leadership.

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About the Author(s)

Michael Lynch

Chief Strategy Officer, InAuth

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