This post is also available in: עברית (Hebrew)
Hacking has become one of the auto industry’s biggest concerns, especially as modern cars add more electronic controls and infotainment systems. Last March, the FBI and U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already warned that motor vehicles are “increasingly vulnerable” to hacking.
There are growing indications the “black hat” world of what’s known as the “dark internet” is shifting attention from computer and smartphone targets to automotive ones, according NBC News.
It’s not uncommon for a modern vehicle to use more than 100 million lines of code to control everything from the engine management system to the onboard infotainment technology. By comparison, there are about 8 million lines of code on the latest F-35 fighter jet.
Modern vehicles are adding a variety of wireless communications systems, such as onboard 4G LTE WiFi hot spots. Even the wireless tire pressure monitoring systems, or TPMS, required on all new vehicles, could give hackers a path into the vehicle, experts warn.
According to Saar Dickman, an executive with Harman International, the multinational electronics firm and CEO of TowerSec, the Israeli firm he founded that is considered a leader in vehicle electronic security, “You’re providing more services and more access… You want to embrace innovation, but you have to understand the risks that come with it.”
Towards the major cybersecurity conference scheduled for this coming week in Detroit, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has announced a “bug bounty” for hackers who can find and help it patch vulnerabilities in its vehicles’ software.
“The idea is to go out to the hacker community itself and ask for help,” explained Casey Ellis, CEO and founder of Bugcrowd, a San Francisco-based collective that can draw on their knowledge and efforts of an estimated 32,000 hackers around the world. “Crowdsourcing is very effective when applied to this sort of problem.”
So far, most of the reported incidents have been the result of security experts uncovering vehicle vulnerabilities. That has led to recalls by a number of manufacturers including FCA and BMW, with Nissan shutting down a smartphone app used to control the Leaf battery-car because of potential problems.
The issue of cybersecurity “is real, critical, and here to stay,” warned Ellis, whose firm tries to harness hacker skills for good – but who admits one of the challenges is not opening the door for “black hat” hackers to find new ways to crack into vehicle software code.
The concern is that thieves might have found a way to pair their own electronic car keys with the digital engine control systems in the vehicles they target.
The situation is only getting worse, says Dickman. He and other experts point to a number of potential concerns: Hackers could take control of a vehicle remotely, shutting the vehicle down or causing steering or brakes to fail; that would become even more of a risk with self-driving vehicles, e.g hackers will be able to kidnap or kill motorists by programming in their own destinations; and also personal data could become vulnerable.
Moreover, it’s also a challenge to set up anti-hacking systems that can be constantly updated to block newly discovered threats. Tesla has built into its battery-electric vehicles a system that allows it to use over-the-air, or OTA, updates, and that is likely to become the norm, rather than the exception in years to come. OTA also allows automakers to correct defective software code without issuing recalls forcing customer to drive into showroom service bays.
TowerSec and other cybersecurity firms are also working on new approaches, unique to automobiles, that would automatically lock out suspect software and revert to the original, factory code, if something unusual begins to happen.