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Is Your Car At Risk of Being Hacked?

Tue, 20/06/2017
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Nearly 60% of motorists are concerned that “car hacking” will become a problem to concern the average driver in the future, according to a survey. The biggest fear amongst respondents was their car being stolen through hacking, with 46% worried about car hacking theft.

But is car hacking a real concern for the average motorist? And is there any way for us to protect ourselves, and our cars, from unwanted technological intruders?

How Could Hackers Compromise Your Car?

With cars becoming more connected and high-tech, it’s important that security evolves along with the technology. Modern cars rely heavily on computers for everything from braking to climate control, and the average premium car contains over 100 million lines of code. Where criminals could once break into a car using a coat hanger, in the future thieves could use this computer code to their advantage. For example, they could use signal jammers to jam the signal from your key and prevent you from locking your car. Once inside the car, they could program a blank key fob to match your car, enabling them to drive it away.

In 2015 a writer for Wired magazine reported that hackers had remotely taken control of his Jeep. They could disable the brakes, kill the engine at low speeds, and also affect the GPS and entertainment system. However, the hackers involved with this were actually researchers looking for security holes, and it took them over a year to successfully hack the car. This suggests that criminals are a long way off from being easily able to control your car within seconds, but it is still something that manufacturers will need to think about for the future.

A later stunt by the same researchers involved accelerating, turning the steering wheel, and slamming on the brakes at higher speeds – although these could not be achieved remotely and involved plugging a laptop into the Jeep’s network.

Could Your Car Be Targeted With Ransomware?

After the Wannacry cyber-attack which affected the NHS in May, experts warned that ransomware could become a problem not just for computers, but also for our cars (known as ‘clampware’). Security holes in a car’s software could be hacked to immobilise the car, requiring the driver to pay a ransom in order to be able to drive their vehicle.

The recent Wannacry attack exploited an unknown issue in Windows – and users who had not updated their systems with a 14th March 2017 security patch (two months before the attack which began in May) were vulnerable to the ransomware. Those who updated at the time were protected. With this in mind, it may become more normal for drivers to connect their car to the home Wi-Fi to check for new security updates – while those who ignore such updates will be more at risk.

Is Car Hacking A Serious Threat?

However, Scientific American has been quick to point out that it is extremely difficult to hack a car remotely. By the time hackers have figured out how to compromise a security hole, the manufacturers will have already patched it up, meaning there is no real threat to motorists.

While cars with internet connectivity may be at risk of being hacked, the majority of cars do not have this feature - yet.  Business Insider believes that 82% of cars shipped in 2021 will be internet connected in some way or another – so while most of us don’t have to worry about it today, it may be a deciding factor in your future car purchases.

For those that do, it is essential that these systems are secure. The onus is on the industry to ensure that vehicles are not hackable, and research on the potential dangers is invaluable. In fact, after the demonstrations from the 2015 Jeep hackers, Chrysler tightened up its systems so that these hacks could not be repeated.

It could be that in the future, cars that are highly connected require software patches to keep them secure, much like how we keep our computers secure with updates and anti-virus software. It is important that car manufacturers and researchers continue to keep up to date with the latest developments in technology and security, to ensure their vehicles cannot be compromised. However, at the moment there is no reason for motorists to be very concerned about the threat of cybercrime against their vehicles.

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