Cyber-Security for Modern Vehicles

A few years ago when we talked about automobile security, the talk centered around topics like car-jacking at red lights, steering wheel locks and car alarms. Things like someone hacking into your car and taking over were relegated to spy movies like James Bond by Ian Flemming.  Recently, ideas like this have moved from science fiction into the realm of science fact.  So when did this momentous feat occur and what led to it.

BMW i8

It started many years ago with technologies like automatic transmissions, electronic fuel injection (EFI), and automatic braking systems (ABS).  As more and more of these electronic control systems were added to our automobiles, the electronic wiring harnesses used in them became too complex to manage and manufactures started looking for better ways to manage all of these electrical systems.  Gradually this electrical system has migrated into a Controller Area Network (CAN).  This network is composed of a system of wires and small computers called electronic control units (ECUs) containing software programs that control nearly every aspect of modern cars.

These computers have sensors and switches wired in to detect physical variables such as temperature, pressure, voltage, acceleration, air-to-fuel mixtures, braking, yaw and roll of the vehicle, steering angle, entertainment devices, and many other signals.  When an ECU needs a signal from a sensor connected to an ECU elsewhere in the car, that’s where CAN comes in.  Originally, each of these devices just constantly transmitted its information on the wires so that any other system that needed it had access to it much like early peer-to-peer token ring networks.  This allowed manufactures to easily add newer and slicker features to cars like seat heaters and advanced area environmental controls.  This led to more programming and less physical complexity in car designs.

This really came to the forefront when pollution requirements changed in the late 1970s and the government demanded ways to monitor vehicle emissions. The result was the standardized On-Board Diagnostics protocol (OBD).  This basically introduced a more sophisticated computer into vehicles to monitor the entire CAN.   It efficiently connected all sensors, performed self diagnosis, and broadcast the OBD-II error codes.  These codes were then used to alert you using the designated warning systems, i.e. the check engine light.  You have probably seen this in action and witnessed the codes when you take your car to be serviced.  Indeed, only a couple operations (emergency brake and steering) are not controlled by computers in today’s cars.  This has essentially turned modern vehicles into computers on wheels.

Like the desktop computer world, modern cars are moving away from wired networks and onto online wi-fi networks with things like Global Positioning Systems (GPS), wireless entry, wireless start, and recently some cars even have built in wireless broadband internet.  Many modern cars even have remote kill switches to protect against theft or get the attention of delinquent buyers.  As cars become more wireless, their critical control systems become more vulnerable to hacking.  Up to this point, very little thought has gone into the design of how to prevent this in modern automobiles.

GPS system

This has allowed hackers to first gain access to wireless key systems by first brute force hacking the code or other electronic intervention means like signal amplification of the radio frequency identification (RFID) keys.  In 2011 a team of researchers from the University of Washington and the University of California at San Diego presented a paper on remote automobile attacks which showed that they could wirelessly disable the locks and brakes on a sedan.  But being academics, they only shared the car make and other details of the exploit with car manufacturers.

Recently, there was an instance in Austin, TX, where a disgruntled fired employee hacked into their system and bricked (killed the engines and set off other warning systems like honking the horn repeatedly) in over 100 cars from lots sold at his former employer.

If that was not enough, two hackers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, with the permission of Wired Magazine recently demonstrated that it was possible to remotely hack into a Chrysler Jeep and take control of primary safety systems which could have fatal consequences for the driver.  What is more they will be presenting their hack to the world at the Black Hat and Defcon conferences minus the code to rewrite the system’s firmware.  This should give most drivers cause for concern as many hackers may have the expertise to reverse engineer that part of the code.

Car security

Congress and other branches of the federal government have recently been struggling to develop and formalize a plan of action for the Internet of Things (IOT); included among these are connected automobiles.  These instances along with other episodes have finally led to action by some members of Congress. Senators Markey and Blumenthal just recently (July 21, 2015) introduced legislation to protect consumers from security and privacy threats to their motor vehicles.  This act not only tries to formalize minimal standards to protect a drivers security and privacy but also aims to create a “cyber dashboard”.  This dashboard will inform consumers how the vehicle protects their privacy and security beyond those minimums.  It is important to know that this bill is in the early stages of the process to becoming law as it has just gone to committee.  It may be a little cynical, but I think only time will tell if this “Spy Car Act of 2015” ever becomes law and if it does what will its final form be after committee.

As you can see from the examples I have presented, modern automobile manufacturers have not been vigilant in the design of their new internet connected systems for the vehicles they produce.  Modern vehicles have many broadband receivers for long range signals like GPS and satellite radio.  Indeed, it was through the entertainment system that the two hackers mentioned above first gained access to the Chrysler Jeep to reprogram the ECU and take control of key safety systems.  In addition to these systems, remote telematic systems (e.g., Ford’s Sync, GM’s OnStar, Toyota’s SafetyConnect, Lexus’ Enform, BMW’s BMW Assist, and Mercedes-Benz’ mbrace) that provide continuous connectivity via cellular voice and data networks may present the best opportunity for hackers. These systems have mostly been designed towards convenience with emergency safety for the consumer in mind.  Most have little real security from a software standpoint, can be accessed over arbitrary distances, have high bandwidth, support two-way communications, provide active control, and are individually addressable.  This makes them prime targets for hackers.

Another target for hackers in today’s automobiles comes in the form of new modern features that are now been implemented in vehicles as part of optional collision detection and avoidance systems.  These include sensors, radars, cameras, and short-range wi-fi communications used for front, rear, and side collision detection.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) believes that such systems should be standard equipment on new cars, similarly to seat belts and airbags.  The NTSB wants the government to mandate these systems in new vehicles.

These systems work by using various types of sensors to collect information necessary to avoid accidents like distance from vehicle, speed and road conditions to either alert the driver or automatically take control of critical safety systems like braking or steering to avoid collisions.  They transfer this information via short range wi-fi instructions to ECUs in modern vehicles.  It is believed that future versions of these systems will communicate vehicle to vehicle (V2V), as well as, vehicle to intelligent highway infrastructure (V2I).  This will give malicious hackers new points of entry into automobile computers both directly and through the infrastructure devices.  The automobile industry is currently looking into ways to secure these interface messaging systems but is well behind at this point.  Although some of these systems are currently being implemented in modern vehicles, no minimum guidelines for their security have yet been formulated.