December 5, 2015

Will Hackers Target Your Car’s Computer System Next?

The rise of computer hacking groups like Anon and LulzSec has ushered in a new discussion on security including your car’s computer system. With all their new computer technology, modern cars are becoming ripe targets for hackers looking for new ways to disrupt our lives.

In the beginning (circa 1960), “hackers” were MIT students with extremely detailed knowledge of model trains. Then, after computers became available in the 70's and 80's, there was the Hacker's Manifesto era: intelligent, but mostly harmless, hackers that were interested in seeing what they could pull off with no real goal in mind. During the 1990's and 2000's, hacking was a thing everyone had an opinion on but no one really knew anything about. There were some random hacking events, but almost nothing coordinated or on the scale we've seen in the last 10 years.

Today, society has become aware of more hackivist groups such as Anon and LulzSec, which have gone after major corporations like PayPal and Sony (to name just a couple). Compounding the growing hacking problem is that, since the moment microchips were developed, we've been trying to get them into everything we own. If you own a watch, there's a good chance it has greater computing power than NASA had in the lunar lander. Your cell phone is a thousand times more powerful yet. And our cars and their accessories, like genuine Toyota parts, are getting there own microchips with options like:

  • Bluetooth ready stereo systems

  • Keyless entry remotes and keyless ignitions

  • GPS enabled stereos and satellite radio systems

  • New computer systems like Toyota's Entune or Ford's MyFordTouch

Every time you step into your car, not only are you relying on all the thousands of mechanical pieces to do their job, but, more and more, you are trusting that every piece of software will work exactly as it is should. For example, computer controlled steering and vehicle braking makes stability control possible. Yet what if the computer system that controls steering and braking were hacked? Can hackers make your brakes fail? Can hackers cause your engine to run away? Can hackers keep your airbags from deploying?

Almost every single system in the modern automobile is based on a computer which, as we network more effectively, allows more routes into the car from external sources. This technology combined with the axiom of hacking, if you build it, we will hack it, is causing a new level of concern.

It's up to auto manufacturers to design their systems to be difficult for hackers to attack. Let's hope they're doing it right.


Author Jason Lancaster is a tech-savvy writer who provides helpful information for auto owners while working for Olathe Toyota Parts and Accessories.

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