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Are Smart Cars Safe from Cyber Attacks?

2 min read

While the Internet of Things and powerful computer systems make the amazing features of modern cars possible, they can also be an opening for hackers to get into mischief.

Imagine losing the ability to steer or brake as you are speeding down the expressway, or suddenly getting a ransom ware message on your car’s touchscreen telling you that you have to pay a $200 ransom to unlock your car’s computer to regain control of your data, brakes and steering.

While these may seem like scenarios out of an action movie, the truth is that they could happen for real as technology advances. As vehicles get increasingly connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) to provide safety features and services for a driver’s convenience, they also risk being hacked, just like computers. Features such as GPS navigation system, adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, and blind spot monitoring all rely on computers, which mean they could turn into potential access points for hackers. If your car is connected to your phone, there is also the potential to steal your phone data, such as details of where you have been or whom you have spoken to.

Cases since 2010

In 2010, a disgruntled employee in Austin, Texas, triggered a web-based vehicle immobilisation system, causing more than 100 vehicles to be disabled or honk continuously. Closer to home, there were reports of smart cars that employ the keyless entry system being stolen in minutes by thieves in Malaysia using a frequency-hacking device.

The most famous example illustrating how a smart vehicle could be compromised was reported in 2015, when security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek hacked into a Jeep Cherokee and were able to turn the steering wheel, activate the windshield wipers, briefly disable the brakes, and even shut down the engine. Their hack could also enable surveillance by tracking GPS coordinates, measuring its speed and tracing its route!

The researchers also discovered that they could access thousands of other vehicles that were using the wireless entertainment and navigation system called Uconnect, which enables phone calls as well as Wi-Fi hotspots. By exploiting a weak point in the network of the system, the researchers showed that they could allow an individual to be found and targeted.

Staying vigilant

While these cases are unsettling, the safety and convenience of smart cars far outweigh their cyber-vulnerabilities. With the smart car population estimated to rise to 160 million worldwide by 2020, addressing such vulnerabilities early could help car manufacturers continually strive to improve the strength of security features in their cars.

For a long time now, we have been reminded to be vigilant about cyber attacks on our computers and phones; as drivers, we should now also be aware of the risks of cybercrimes being committed on our cars.