Car-Hacking: Bluetooth and Other Security Issues

It's not time for full-on panic, but researchers have already successfully applied brakes remotely, listened into conversations and more.

By Linda Melone
Mon, August 06, 2012

Computerworld — A disgruntled former employee of Texas Auto Center chose a creative way to get back at the Austin-based dealership: He hacked into the company's computers and remotely activated the vehicle-immobilization system, which triggered the horn and disabled the ignition system in more than 100 of the vehicles. The dealership had installed the system in their cars as a way to deal with customers who fell behind on their payments.

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Police arrested the man and charged him with breach of computer security. His legal status was unclear as of our deadline for this story.

Out-of-control honking horns may be annoying, but other types of hacking, such as cutting the engine of unsuspecting drivers, could have deadly consequences. Although most experts agree there isn't an immediate risk, vehicle hacking is something that bears watching.

With the increasing computerization of vehicles of all types, observers have longer-term concerns over the vulnerabilities of trucks, delivery vans, rental cars and consumer autos. A malicious hacker could, in theory, disable the vehicles, re-route GPS signals or otherwise put employees, customers and the company as a whole in danger.

Consumers are getting worried about the safety and privacy risks that come with today's connected cars, according to a Harris Interactive poll released last week. For their part, auto makers and industry association spokesmen responded that they are adding electronic features carefully and based on market research.

Modern vehicle engines bear little resemblance to the engines of the past. Engines originally consisted of various mechanical devices assembled around a combustion engine. Within the past 20 years, cars have evolved to contain a complex network of as many as 50 to 70 independent computers, electronic control units (ECUs) with up to 100MB of binary code. Automotive ECUs originally entered production in the U.S. largely in response to California's automotive-emissions reduction law, first passed in 1961, and then the subsequent federal Clean Air Act, passed originally in 1963, strengthened considerably in 1970 and updated since then.

ECUs measure the oxygen present in exhaust fumes and adjust the fuel/oxygen mixture before combustion, which improves efficiency and reduces pollutants. Over time these systems have become integrated into nearly every aspect of a car's functioning, including air bag deployment, steering, braking and other real-time systems.

In the mid-1990s car manufacturers began integrating more powerful ECUs with peripherals such as GM's OnStar system, which is a combination GPS, emergency response unit and vehicle recovery system. An OnStar-equipped car can analyze its on-board diagnostics as the car is being driven, detecting problems and alerting the driver to any issues that require a visit to the repair shop.

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