Car hacking would be as hard to explain to classic car buffs as hacking a bicycle would be to a ten year-old. But today’s cars are able to drive, stop, and park with computer assistance or total control. Step on the brake and it’s likely you are interacting with an invisible computerized driver rather than your car itself. If computers are really doing the driving, then they, rather than you, become hacking targets. Lose control of that computer, and dangerous things can happen.
But the computers found in autonomous vehicles and smart cars are not what you’d find on your laptop or even your mobile device. Rewind five or ten years, and think of specific computers performing unique, dedicated tasks, like moving a lever or switch. They don’t need to be able to do your taxes, just open a valve.
Now imagine the kind of network that would tie together all these simple devices to form a complete working car, kind of a constellation of dedicated computers driving at the speed limit down a road. This network—typically a Controller Area Network—is simple and extremely reliable, and present in all contemporary autos. Reliable car systems are the bedrock of the automotive industry, but leveled against modern hacking techniques, they also can provide a very reliable hacking surface. Without better security, autonomous and connected vehicles put passengers at risk of car hacking and even demands from ransomware proliferators.
The problem with being “too” connected
The average new car in 2015 contained more than 30 microprocessors, and the security of those embedded systems is severely challenged by in-vehicle internet connectivity, according to a recent report by VDC research. The same report states that by 2020, more than three-quarters of new vehicles will have internet connectivity through an embedded modem and/or a smartphone interface.
The basic flaw in autonomous vehicles is the vulnerability that results from all systems being interconnected. The Controller Area Network, or CAN bus, runs the important things in a car like engine and transmission controls, as well as the system you’ll interact most with: the infotainment computer on your dashboard. The infotainment system is often tied to the internet to enable you to get directions. If the infotainment system intersects both the CAN bus and the internet, suddenly over-the-air hacks become more of a reality if the bus is left unsecured. This is the most worrisome repercussion of connected car hacking -- possibly affecting your vehicle unbeknownst to you while you drive down the road.
Prior to the infotainment system interacting with the CAN bus, you’d need physical access to the vehicle to tell things on the CAN bus what to do. But more modern infotainment systems have the ability to change things directly on the CAN bus and not just monitor them (like your fuel level), allowing a significant attack surface to present itself.
Protecting autonomous and connected vehicles against cyberattacks
So how can automakers protect against attacks from a cyber enemy? If the recent hacking of connected vehicles has taught us anything, it’s time for the CAN bus to get a security overhaul using the lessons learned from every other commercial network in the world over the past five years: by putting network security best practices in place. By determining the authenticity of commands sent across the CAN bus, and preventing rogue ones from being acted upon, the CAN bus – and therefore your car – becomes exponentially safer. That won’t help older automobiles, but security add-ons are available, to an extent.
The next step is locking down the infotainment system from having unlimited read/write access to critical vehicle control systems by accessing the CAN bus. And just in case you thought CAN buses were only for cars, there is a new round of electronic products for bicycles that use it as well. Now THAT would blow a 10-year-old’s mind.