Car-hacking chaos

Car-hacking chaos

Frightening scenarios loom as hackers learn to take control of your car

By Jennifer Hadley 10/31/2013

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From time to time when I’m driving, I recall that scene from “Gremlins,” the one in which the little devils had multiplied out of control and were desperately trying to destroy Phoebe Cates’ darling little town.  In one scene, the nasty critters  (not Gizmo, obviously) had seized control of the traffic signals and crossed their wires causing them to malfunction, resulting in multicar pile ups at intersections.

I’ve wondered why nobody has ever thought of doing this in real life. I mean, let’s face it, there are some complete wing nuts running around who live for creating that sort of pandemonium. And surely with today’s technology, there are hackers who could easily orchestrate this type of chaos. They can shut down entire government Web sites, for crying out loud. It couldn’t be that hard to cause a bunch of people to crash into each other, could it? (For the record, these musings do not make me a sociopath. I know this because I took an online quiz to confirm.)

Sadly, the opportunities to create this kind of mass chaos do exist. But what is even more frightening is the very real threat of a hacker commandeering individual cars. I don’t fancy myself an alarmist, but when the government begins funding research to determine whether individual automobiles can be controlled by a hacker, I start to feel a little on edge.
Indeed, the Pentagon coughed up $80,000 to a couple of techies to see just how easily the computer systems, which are essentially standard in all new cars — could be hacked and manipulated. Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek showed off their results at the DefCon hackers convention in Las Vegas in August. They successfully took control of electronic smart steering, braking, displays, acceleration, engines, horns and lights of a 2010 Prius and Escape. Oh, and they could also make you think you had a full tank of gas when it was actually empty.

In their research “Adventures in Automotive Networks and Control Units,” they state, “Drivers and passengers are strictly at the mercy of the code running in their automobiles and, unlike when their Web browser crashes or is compromised, the threat to their physical well-being is real.”

Fortunately, Miller and Valasek appear to be sharing their results as a way to help car manufacturers safeguard against hackers.  However, there are bound to be a few bad apples out there who aren’t so eager to use their tech-savvy for the greater good. In fact, when investigative journalist Michael Hastings died in a single-vehicle accident in June, theories that his car had been cyber-hacked were floated by many people, including Richard Clarke, former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism. The theories did not pan out, but the reality is cyber-hacking of cars is not only possible, but has the potential to pose a very serious safety risk. That risk is increased as cars rely less on human control and move more toward automation, as in the driverless cars of the future. 

So what can you do to ensure that some ne’er do well doesn’t hijack your car while you’re driving it? To date, nothing. Indeed there is nothing individuals can do to prevent our own cars from being hacked. But you may take comfort in knowing that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is well aware of the problem and has, in fact, included a whopping $2 million for research into vehicle cyber-security into its 2014 budget. Yes, indeed, they are putting the same amount of money into research to determine how to protect you from losing control of your car at the hands of someone else that you may put into a new home in Linda Vista.

If that doesn’t terrify you, I’m not sure what will, aside from Gremlins, naturally. n 

Contact Jennifer Hadley at


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