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car crashIn the early hours of  June 18th, a Mercedes coupé travelling at an extremely high speed along a Los Angeles street smashed into a palm tree. It exploded into flames, killing the driver; the impact ejected the engine 50 meters clear of the car. Was it an accident? Or was the car hacked, allowing it to be driven off the road by remote control?

According to New Scientist the very idea might sound like a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster but it’s one that Richard Clarke, a former counterterrorism adviser to the US National Security Council, has raised after the driver was identified as Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings. Known for his revealing articles on the US military and its intelligence agencies, Hastings had emailed colleagues the day before he died to say that he was going “off the radar for a bit” to chase down a “big story”.

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“The evidence publically available is consistent with a car cyberattack” says Clarke in a Huffington Post interview. Intelligence agencies, he says, can remotely seize control of a car to make it accelerate wildly or brake suddenly, for instance.

Clarke cited research, carried out for the US National Academy of Sciences, showing that “connected cars” – equipped with built-in cellular technology used by dashboard apps and engine-monitoring software – can be hacked remotely. But practical proof has been lacking.

That looks set to change on July 27th, when Spanish engineers Javier Vázquez Vidal and Alberto Garcia Illera will give a demonstration at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. They have built a $25 device that lets them bypass security in a car’s electronic control unit.

The brain of a modern car, the ECU, is a computer that controls engine power, transmission and braking. Mechanics can diagnose faults by plugging a laptop into it via standard wired connectors such as the CAN bus. Alternatively, remote diagnostics and software updates can take place over a cellular network, as happens with services such as General Motors’ OnStar and Mercedes-Benz’s Mbrace.

Vázquez Vidal and Garcia Illera will show how their device – which they claim uses a $1 chip to break encryption – can read from and write data to the flash memory of commonly used ECUs, made by Bosch of Germany. In this way, they can get more horsepower out of a car, or tell it to burn less fuel. “And it would take no time to gain total control over a vehicle – deploying an airbag, activating the brakes, or immobilizing a car at any moment,” says Vázquez Vidal.

How they have done this is unclear. “My best guess is that they have managed to put the ECU into an unencrypted test state, possibly by playing around with power-up sequences,” says Peter Highton, a senior engineer with Freescale Semiconductor in Aylesbury, UK, which makes ECU microchips for racing cars as well as ordinary vehicles.

For security, connected cars should use encryption, but Highton says carmakers are only just coming to terms with it. “Until as recently as five years ago, data on the CAN bus of most cars was unencrypted, and so could be intercepted and altered.”

Whatever the causes of Michael Hastings’s crash, the need to make cars secure against hacking will only become more acute. The next version of Vázquez Vidal and Garcia Illera’s device won’t even need plugging in to the target car. “I am already working on a wireless version,” Vázquez Vidal says.