The World's Most Hackable Cars

Researchers find 2014 models of Dodge Viper, Audi A8, Honda Accord are the <i>least</i> likely to be hit by hackers.

Updated on 8/4/2014 with Chrysler comments

If you drive a 2014 Jeep Cherokee, a 2014 Infiniti Q50, or a 2015 Escalade, your car not only has state-of-the-art network-connected functions and automated features, but it's also the most likely to get hacked.

That's what renowned researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek concluded in their newest study of vulnerabilities in modern automobiles, which they will present Wednesday at Black Hat USA in Las Vegas. The researchers focused on the potential for remote attacks, where a nefarious hacker could access the car's network from afar -- breaking into its wireless-enabled radio, for instance, and issuing commands to the car's steering or other automated driving feature.

The researchers studied in-depth the automated and networked functionality in modern vehicle models, analyzing how an attacker could potentially access a car's Bluetooth, telematics, or on-board phone app, for example, and using that access to then control the car's physical features, such as automated parking, steering, and braking. Some attacks would require the attacker to be within a few meters of the targeted car, but telematics-borne attacks could occur from much farther away, the researchers say.

Not surprisingly, the vehicles with fewer computerized and networked functions were less likely to get attacked by a hacker. "The most hackable cars had the most [computerized] features and were all on the same network and could all talk to each other," says Miller, who is a security engineer at Twitter. "The least hackable ones had [fewer] features, and [the features] were segmented, so the radio couldn't talk to the brakes," for example.

The 2014 Infiniti Q50 would be the easiest of all to hack because its telematics, Bluetooth, and radio functions all run on the same network as the car's engine and braking systems, for instance, making it easier for an attacker to gain control of the car's computerized physical operations.

Different vehicles had different network configurations: Some had Bluetooth on a separate network than the steering and acceleration systems.

The researchers say the 2014 Dodge Viper, the 2014 Audi A8, and the 2014 Honda Accord are the least hackable vehicles. They ranked the Audi A8 as the least hackable overall because its network-accessible potential attack surfaces are separated from the car's physical components such as steering, notes Miller. "Each feature of the car is separated on a different network and connected by a gateway," he says. "The wirelessly connected computers are on a separate network than the steering, which makes us believe that this car is harder to hack to gain control over" its features.

By contrast, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee runs the "cyber physical" features and remote access functions on the same network, Valasek notes. "We can't say for sure we can hack the Jeep and not the Audi, but… the radio can always talk to the brakes," and in the Jeep Cherokee, those two are on the same network, he says.

Update: A Chrylser spokesperson told Dark Reading its vehicles come with security features already, and the company is working on new security features as well. "Chrysler Group takes seriously the issue of cyber security. Our vehicles are equipped with security systems to help minimize the risk from real-world threats and we have multiple engineering teams dedicated to developing new security features," the spokesperson said in a statement.

"Chrysler Group will endeavor to verify these claims and, if warranted, we will remediate them. However, we support the responsible disclosure protocol for addressing cyber security threats. Accordingly, we invite security specialists to first share with us their findings so we might achieve a cooperative resolution. To do otherwise would benefit only those with malicious intent," he said.

Worries over the cyber security of cars is gaining traction ever since Miller and Valasek's 2013 DEF CON car-hacking research, where the pair demonstrated how they were able to hack and take control of the electronic smart steering, braking, acceleration, engine, and other functions of a 2010 Toyota Prius and 2010 Ford Escape. That research focused on what a bad guy could do if he could get inside the car's internal network, and the researchers physically test-drove the hacks they discovered.

While the pair didn't get much response from Ford and Toyota after providing the carmakers with detailed documentation of their findings, the automobile industry meanwhile appears to be waking up to the potential cyber risks to cars: The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers last month announced plans to address growing concerns over security weaknesses and vulnerabilities in new and evolving vehicle automation and networking features. The industry is now forming a voluntary mechanism for sharing intelligence on security threats and vulnerabilities in car electronics and in-vehicle data networks -- likely via an Auto-ISAC (Information Sharing and Analysis Center).

[Researchers who hacked Toyota Prius and Ford Escape hope to foster a future "car-in-a-box" model for tinkering with vehicle security issues. Read Car Hackers Release Tools.]

IPS "under the hood"
Meantime, there are ways to potentially lock down these advanced features in today's modern vehicles. Miller and Valasek have built a prototype device that detects and stops a cyber attack. They describe it as a sort of intrusion prevention system (IPS) inside a car that would detect that an attacker that had broken into the car's networked radio, and stop him from sending the braking system a message to lock up, for example.

"It's a device you could plug into the car to stop any of the attacks we've done and that others have done," says Valasek, who is director of security intelligence for IOActive.

The researchers in their Black Hat presentation will show video clips of the prototype and how it can stop an attacker. The device basically plugs into a vehicle's diagnostic port.

"It's mostly about an algorithm that detects attacks and prevents them," Miller says. "You could put it under the hood."

Miller and Valasek say their work studying security weaknesses in vehicles is an attempt to get ahead of the threat: The risk of your car getting hacked today is relatively low. And it doesn't mean you shouldn't buy a car loaded with technology, they say. "This is really an opportunistic attack," Valasek says. "It takes a lot of time, effort, dedication, and money to figure out how to perform one of these attacks and to succeed doing it. Joe Consumer doesn't have to worry, but if you're a high-profile person with a lot of technology in your vehicle, it's something to consider."

They say they are conducting this research now ahead of the game and before it gets easier for attackers to exploit these car network and automation features -- a window that they think could close in the next five years.

The researchers -- who at Black Hat will provide more details of their findings and release their paper on them -- have provided carmakers the report. They're hoping the car companies will take the threat seriously and offer ways to lock down weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as technology to detect and deflect an attack.

Read more about:

Black Hat News

About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights