It sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster: hacking into cars and messing around with their vital computer systems. As far-fetched as it may sound, it is possible. Now, you don't need to get paranoid and check under your hood every time you take your car for a spin, but, as one group of researchers discovered, hacking into a car is not as hard as one would think.
The actual hacking of the auto's computer systems took place in Washington back in 2009. University researchers Tadayoshi Kohno and Stefan Savage performed the experiment as part of a study, whose results will be presented near the end of this month in Oakland, California, at a security conference. While the study's results could definitely spark fear and paranoia in many car owner's minds, the researchers insist that creating fear is not their intent. Rather, they hope that their findings will set off an alarm with car manufacturers and urge them to increase security standards when building new and more sophisticated vehicles that rely on such technology.
Before the researchers began the experiment, they expected to have a lot of complicated and intense work in front of them. When they actually initiated it, however, they found it was rather simple to hack into the cars' computers. In order to successfully hack into the systems, the researchers studied a diagnostic system that became mandatory in cars as of 2008: the Controller Area Network system. They made their own program to affect the CAN system, and once that was accomplished, they were able to wreak havoc on the cars' functions that rely on computers to control them.
Among the areas of the car that could be controlled were its engine, instrument panel, AC, and radio. The researchers were even able to control the cars' functions that allow one to lock the doors, open the windows, honk the horn, and open the trunk. They were also able to change the firmware without the need for any authentication. This was surprising, as the auto industry has regulations in place stating that cars must be protected from unauthorized firmware updates.
Once they had access to the cars' computer systems, there was virtually no limit as to what could be done. They could shut off the engine and turn off the brakes. Passengers could be locked in the car. They could change the radio stations and engage the air conditioning or heating systems. They could even make the speedometers read incorrectly.
As scary as all of those scenarios sound, the researchers believe that the possibility of them actually happening is slim. To hack the vehicles, one would have to physically plant a computer somewhere on the car. They would also have to be an expert in hacking the systems and have studied them extensively.
However, where there is a will there is a way, and the advent of Internet-based systems and the use of wireless technology by auto companies could open up some avenues for hackers. Hopefully car manufacturers will take this study to heart and make an effort to curb the possibility of such attacks from actually happening.
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