Your car may not be as safe as you believe it is. It is jarring to think that someone else can force your Toyota Prius to brake abruptly at 80 miles per hour, accelerate, or control the steering wheel. Acting on a grant from the U.S. government, hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek have spent months uncovering techniques to do just that. Directly plugged into the car's computer system, the duo could disable the brakes of a Ford Escape, rendering the pedal completely useless. Right now, car hacking is rudimentary; it is not something to be scared about. However, the future presents a far more disconcerting picture. These flaws needs to be swiftly corrected and guarded against.
Car hacking is not a new science; in fact it has been widely studied. But never before has a report this large been publicized. Miller and Valasek, known as white hat hackers — individuals who attempt to discover software flaws before criminals can — plan to present their findings to a group of their constituents at the Def Con hacking convention this week.
During their study, the pair was directly connected into the systems of the Toyota Prius and could control the systems at will. The cars used in the study are extremely dependent on the electronic computer systems to function. Consulting for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Project Agency, the engineers displayed a variety of the manipulations they could perform on the car. Andy Greenberg, a writer for Forbes, agreed to test-drive a car while Miller and Valsek sat in the back seat and subjected the vehicle to various hacks. The results are alarming.
Both Toyota and Ford have responded to the findings saying that they take electronic security very seriously and take great measures to guard against it. "It's entirely possible to do," John Hanson, a spokesman for Toyota, said, "Absolutely we take it seriously."
A great deal of the hype suggests that a terrorist with a laptop can remotely take control of your car, but these assumptions are far-fetched. There have been numerous reports of hackers using electronic systems to unlock and steal cars, but the ability to remotely control a car is not a pressing concern at this moment.
In 2011, a group of researchers found ways to infect cars using Bluetooth systems and wireless networks. While they maintain that the systems are a long ways away from being utilized as potential weapons, they recognize that it could become an issue. "While increased use of electronic controls and connectivity is enhancing transportation safety and efficiency, it brings a new challenge of safeguarding against potential vulnerabilities," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a statement.
The attacks conducted by Miller and Valsek were not remote; they were direct inputs into the car's system. Although the direct inputs dispel the possibility of potential terrorist scenarios some have conjured, the study continues to highlight the need for advanced security within increasingly electronically dependent car systems. At this point, "it's naive to think people could control a car using something like Bluetooth," said Toyota. "There's not one single system, so the steering and the brakes aren't linked to the radio or telephone. That's not to say it could never be done, but we're investing heavily to make sure it can't."