Is Your Car Hack-Proof?

Written by on October 23, 2012 in Technology - No comments | Print this page

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Cars are becoming increasingly sophisticated. In the modern world this means that they rely heavily on computer software (electronic control units – ECUs) to manage pretty much all of the systems that keep them running. For example, many cars come with a built-in GPS, which is, essentially, a computer. Voice activated calling and touchscreens for radio control are also computerised. Keyless cars, ABS brakes, traction control and parking sensors – all of these are computer enabled.

These systems are designed to make our cars safer and easier to drive, but they also mean that if one system goes wrong, it all goes very wrong.

Oh dear

What if your keyless entry goes awry and you can’t get into your car? If you have a key car you can call a locksmith. But who do you call when your car locks you out?

What if your ECU-controlled air bags go wonky and go off while you’re in the middle of a highway?

What if the software controlling your brakes goes AWOL and you go careering through pedestrian crossings?

There are a lot of what-if scenarios and maybe some of them are fairly unlikely, but they are still disconcerting to think about.

Oh very dear

One of the biggest risks computer-reliant cars face is hacking. Yes, hacking.

Back in 2010, David Teeghman cited a study by the Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security, which found that car computer systems are just as vulnerable to hacking as the computers you use at home and work. In fact, some studies have suggested that car computers are even more vulnerable than your desktop or laptop.

In 2011, Larry Greenemeier (Scientific American) said that the fact that ECU software shares networks makes them more vulnerable to attack. There is the potential for people to hack the system from their smartphones, which is a worrying thought as smartphones are also getting more sophisticated all the time. Greenemeier also says that adding more nonessential systems to the essential ones increases the danger.

In August 2012, Reuters reported that professional hackers working for Intel are trying to find ways to increase ECUs’ security. It should be noted that Intel’s professional hackers are in no way criminal; instead they are dedicated to finding and eradicating weaknesses in software.

The danger is greater than most people realise because a particularly malicious attack could lead to fatal collisions, although none have yet been reported.

There is no doubt that some ECU systems are essential to our cars, and to our lives. There is also no doubt that as we get used to technology simplifying our lives, we’ll come to expect more convenient, yet nonessential systems in our cars.

We should ensure, however, that the systems are secure and as resistant to attack as possible. Perhaps that will become the basis for choosing car brands in the future.

This guest post was written by Sandy Cosser on behalf of Dynamics Careers, which helps Microsoft Dynamics Developers unleash their talents all over the world.

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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