Auto Hacking Could Be Your Biggest Threat

By Stephen Recca, M.A.

CTU Homeland Security Studies Degree - Auto HackingApproximately 400,000 people flow into the District of Columbia to work each day. Many commute by train or Metro. But a large number drive and thoughtlessly endure the slog (I feel your pain!) into the Washington metro area. Few consider the potential threat hidden in their automobiles. But what if someone wanted to shut down the U.S. government? How might a determined adversary approach the problem using a non-kinetic weapon (i.e. no bombs or boom)? Could a simple computer virus do the trick?

Hackers working for Intel Corporation’s McAfee Security Unit seem to think we should be concerned. The growing number and the complexity of electronic devices governing vehicle control systems make for a tempting target. At issue is whether automobile and parts manufacturers have placed enough emphasis on securing these devices from manipulation, either through a virus or by a feature that enables external control.

Of course, the primary concern is vehicle “hacking” with criminal intent. Would-be thieves can hack into a car’s computer system to “break in” with the intent to steal the vehicle outright or just access its contents. Pretty nasty, but not unlike the security challenges we face with our other electronic devices like smartphones and laptops. But it can get worse. Today, bad guys with a bit of creativity and innovation have another target of opportunity: causing catastrophic events with a simple auto-hack.

In the past, criminals took lives with car bombs, but today, advances in technology have given these same criminals the opportunity to create virtual bombs that reside innocently in your automobile. Virtual bombs are viruses disguised as a Trojan horse that can take control of your vehicle, manipulating its speed or direction on command – the criminal’s command. While there is never a lack of doomsday scenarios in the security world, the implications for individuals, groups and whole communities to be targeted is, well, real.

Without causing too much panic, have you considered the effects of a localized electromagnetic pulse  (EMP) directed at drivers commuting along a major artery feeding like the Pentagon? The resulting roadway chaos would effectively shut down major elements of government, something akin to sequestration, but without the cost savings.

The homeland security implications of auto hacking are real and clear. It’s time to stop ignoring the issue and add vehicle computer security to the watch list. Or, if we hope to be fully protected, we should consider everything with a seemingly innocuous computer chip as a potential security threat. This may not be Animal Farm, but I plan to watch my cats and dog – given their embedded locator chips – much more closely from now on.

Image credit: Flickr/ mcbeth