Keeping Your Car's Computer Safe From Viruses
August 21, 2012

Experts Want To Keep Your Car’s Computer Safe From Attack

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

A virus on a computer can be bad enough, possibly leading to hacked accounts and even broken hardware. A virus on your car´s computer however, could be downright dangerous.

As our world progresses, so too does our desire to computerize everything, and our cars have become quite advanced. Staying one step ahead, the McAfee team at Intel Corp has been working away in a very unusual office for computer programmers and hackers: a West Coast garage.

McAfee, makers of the popular anti-virus software, are just one of the teams looking to protect automobiles from many bugs and viruses which could wreak havoc on the tiny computers inside modern cars.

As the cars become increasingly advanced and the technology becomes cheaper, more and more of these wide open and vulnerable computers are driving freely on our Nation´s interstates, freeways and city streets. According to some experts, many automakers have yet to address the issue, giving hackers the ability to not only eavesdrop, but also steal cars and potentially cause them to crash into one another.

Chief technology officer of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, John Bumgarner spoke to Reuters about the potential danger, saying, “You can definitely kill people.”

Though there have yet to be any violent attacks on car computers reported, companies like Intel´s McAfee and even Ford Motor Company aren´t waiting for the hackers to strike first.

“Ford is taking the threat very seriously and investing in security solutions that are built into the product from the outset,” said Alan Hall, a spokesman for Ford. According to Hall, his company has given their security engineers the job of making their Sync in-vehicle offerings as imperceptible to hacking attacks as possible.

In 2010, a group of computer scientists from the US showed the automobile just how dangerous a virus on a car´s computer could be when they took control and damaged some cars moving at high speeds at a decommissioned airport.

After this exhibit, SAE International, an association of more than 128,000 automobile and aerospace technicians, tasked a committee with advising automobile manufacturers on how to not only detect attacks on their automobiles, but also to prevent infiltrations.

“Any cyber security breach carries certain risk,” said Jack Pokrzywa, SAE´s manager of ground vehicle standards, speaking to Reuters.

“SAE Vehicle Electrical System Security Committee is working hard to develop specifications which will reduce that risk in the vehicle area.”

The same group of computer scientists who presented that harrowing demonstration in 2010 issued a second report last year, this time saying automobiles can also be susceptible to trojans and worms via their onboard diagnostic systems and even CD players. A hacker disguised as a technician, or a technician turned hacker, could place one of these viruses on a seemingly innocuous plug and install the virus all while appearing to be checking the system´s emissions.

Though the group of scientists did not mention specifically which car manufacturers they used to demonstrate these security vulnerabilities, they told Reuters that all cars were in danger of being hacked, especially when considering that most of these automakers use the same development processes and suppliers.

The world´s largest automaker, Toyota Motor Corp, seems confident in their offerings, saying they haven´t heard of any hacking attacks on their cars.

“They´re basically designed to change coding constantly. I won´t say it´s impossible to hack, but it´s pretty close,” said John Hanson, a spokesman for Toyota.

Later, Hanson said, “Viruses are something that needs to be addressed directly. How we guard against that transfer to our system is a primary focus of our efforts.”