Technology has changed almost every aspect of our daily lives, including how we drive. New developments have made modern vehicles safer, according to Popular Mechanics — not to mention more comfortable and convenient. Wi-Fi, self-parking technology and automatic braking to help prevent accidents are among some newer features. Even keys are a thing of the past in later models thanks to passive start, which allows them to start with the touch of a button when the key fob is in the vehicle.
But what about the potential downsides to these new technologies? Some of these features may require vehicles to be connected to a cellular network to function, according to Andy Davis, transport assurance director at cybersecurity firm NCC Group. That means if a hacker gains access to the system connecting the vehicle to the cellular network, he or she could possibly control the vehicle — including the ability to unlock, accelerate or brake, Davis says.
“As there’s more connectivity, the tech is migrating into the vehicle,” Davis says. “It’s providing more opportunities for hackers who have been conventionally attacking mobile devices or laptops to hack into vehicles.”
In a 2015 experiment, two hackers gained access to a car’s network and successfully controlled the air conditioner and radio before cutting the transmission remotely, according to Wired. The hackers wanted to raise awareness about a security loophole that left as many as an estimated 471,000 vehicles at risk of similar breaches, Wired says. That loophole has since been patched, Wired notes, but experts expect similar security issues in the future.
There haven’t been any reports of malicious hacking of vehicles’ driving controls at this point, Davis says. However, thieves have successfully hacked into vehicles’ keyless entry systems, The Washington Post reports. These electronic ignition systems unlock the vehicle without the driver removing the electronic key fob from his or her pocket.
“They’re exploiting electronic controls to circumvent locks. In the past, they had to smash windows or mess with wiring,” Davis says.
Modern vehicles are essentially mobile computers, the Post notes, embedded with chips running countless lines of code. Hackers may target the various systems that allow the vehicle to communicate with the outside world, including the keyless entry but also Bluetooth connections, satellite radio and wireless tire-pressure monitoring systems, according to the Post.
When choosing a new vehicle, consumers should do their own research. Vehicle manufacturers have been working to safeguard their technology, but building a secure vehicle is more effective than retrofitting security features after they’ve been exploited, Davis notes. Advancements in security and vehicle technology are emerging rapidly, including technology designed to automatically stop vehicles when a crash is imminent or even allow vehicles to drive themselves, so take the time to research high-tech vehicles before purchasing.
Check available information about a vehicle’s technology before purchasing. According to information security organization SANS Institute, important questions to ask include: Is the car’s computer system encrypted to prevent malicious access? Does the technology include device authorization to prevent unauthorized devices such as laptops from accessing the computer system? Does the vehicle include multiple layers of security to provide protection if one security system fails?
Software updates have become as crucial to vehicle safety and security as recalls, and consumers should take them seriously, Davis advises.
But be cautious about how you install these updates. Don’t use USB sticks to upload other software, music or files into your vehicle system, Consumer Reports cautions.
“There have been instances where car companies have mailed out USB memory sticks asking consumers to plug it into the vehicle,” Davis says. This could be a security risk, as hackers could create a counterfeit update notice to trick consumers into installing malicious software in their vehicles, he warns. It is best to install updates directly at the dealership just as you would have the dealership perform repairs on recalled parts, Davis says.
By staying informed and keeping your software up to date, you can help protect your car from hackers.