Report: Have our cars become so high-tech that they're at risk of hacking?

Researcher shows how easily it's done
by Gerard Jude Castillo | Aug 24, 2015

BMW iDrive hack

There once was a time when cars weren’t filled with all sorts of electronic devices. No computer boxes to control engine timing, ignition and the like. In fact, the only electronic item that could be seen in an automobile was the radio. And even that wasn’t exactly a complex thing.

This was likewise the era when stealing a car was rather simple. All a thief needed to do was pick a car’s lock and put a few wires together (also known as hot-wiring), and he could easily drive away with the vehicle. As cars became more sophisticated, security devices like alarms and immobilizers (complete with "rolling codes") tried to prevent thieves from stealing one’s pride and joy.

Nowadays, we all know that our vehicles are filled to the brim with electronic stuff. Everything from locking the door to changing radio stations can be done via the on-board computer. All these are here in the hopes of making our motoring lives simpler and safer. It is also hoped that these features can prevent theft while our cars are parked. But do they really help?

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A few weeks back, the automotive world was abuzz with the news that a Jeep Cherokee had been hacked through its Uconnect infotainment system. This raised a few red flags, making more than a few people ask the question: "Are our cars safe?" Well, security researcher Samy Kamkar tried to answer this as he recently demonstrated how easy it is to gain access to a vehicle through its infotainment system.

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The tools Kamkar used were a $100 (P4,600) homemade device, which he "hooked" (or should we say, hacked) onto a car fitted with General Motors' OnStar entertainment and vehicle personalization system. All he needed to do was mount it underneath the vehicle, enabling him to breach the electronics through a weakness in the OnStar system’s security code. Once in, he could control the car and its various functions, just as if he were the owner himself.

Scary, right? Once GM learned about this, it immediately released an update to its setup, fixing the security flaw. But according to BMWBlog, the OnStar system is just one of the many auto infotainment and personalization interfaces that are prone to such attacks. Even BMW’s iDrive control system could be at risk, apparently. While BMW has been mum about the whole thing--along with whether or not it has taken steps to fix any security issues--fellow German carmaker Mercedes-Benz did say that it does not wish to engage Kamkar in this issue.

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So yes, the image of your car suddenly starting by itself and various vehicle functions engaging isn’t far-fetched at all. But rest assured that as cars and thieves become more sophisticated, so will security measures. In the meantime, let’s all try to stay safe while inside our automobiles.


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