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The Five Coolest Hacks Of 2008

Not even your psyche was safe from hacking this year -- hackers found holes in the highway toll system, building security -- and, yes, your head

Highway To Hell: The Electronic Toll System Hack

Researcher Nate Lawson wasn't about to slap one of those popular RFID-based FasTrak toll tags on his windshield for prepaying highway tolls in the San Francisco Bay Area until he knew for sure just what private information could be exposed. So Lawson did what any good hacker would do: He ripped the tag apart and studied the innards.

"The thing that motivated me to take the transponder apart was that [California transportation officials] added onto the system an information line to get information about Bay Area traffic...it provides really accurate drive times to the airport, etc. They added readers for the transponders all over light poles on the highways," says Lawson, principal with Root Labs. "So in real-time, they are tracking all cars going past [with FasTrak tags]. Most likely, [the data] appears there for a while, so the transponder is subject to hacking." It coulod also be subpoened in court, he adds.

After reverse-engineering the FasTrak tag, Lawson discovered it had some major security holes (like no encryption) that left it vulnerable to sniffing, cloning, and surreptitious tracking of a driver's movements.

The FasTrak transponder basically contains the user's unique identification code, which is tied to back-end servers that store the driver's toll balance and other financial and personal data. There's a placeholder of sorts for an encryption key, but no sign of encryption. "It amazes me there has not already been widespread fraud, cloning, and selling of 'free transponders' that [were hacked and reprogrammed]," he says. "There's nothing there technically to prevent it."

Lawson also is looking at whether malware could be inserted on a FasTrak transponder. "Because of the proprietary extensions [the vendors] added to support the parking lot stuff and other future uses," the devices could possibly be vulnerable to malware-borne hacks as well, he says.

Next: Psyche-cracking Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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