Today’s Connected Cars Vulnerable to Hacking, Malware

The McAfee Advanced Threat Research team recently published an article about threats to automobiles on the French site JournalAuto.com. Connected cars are growing rapidly in number and represent the next big step in personal transportation. Auto sales are expected to triple between 2017 and 2022, to US$155.9 billion from $52.5 billion, according to PwC France. Realizing this increase is a huge challenge for car companies as well as for IT security firms.

Through multiple added functions, from Wi-Fi and external connections to driving assistance and autonomous operations, connected cars will very soon need strong security to avoid any intrusions that could endanger drivers, passengers, and others.

Security Risks

Modern cars are exposed to security risks just as are other connected devices. Let’s look at current and future threats in the automotive security field.

The following diagram shows the main risks: 

 

Personal Data and Tracking

Connected cars record a lot of information about their drivers. This information can come from an external device connected to the car, such as a phone, and can include contact details, SMS and calls history, and even musical tastes. A car can also record shifting patterns and other driver’s habits that could be used to create a picture of a driver’s competence. This kind of oversight could aid insurance companies when offering coverage, for example.

With personal data now considered the new gold, all of this information represents a valuable target for cybercriminals as well as companies and governments.

  • Cybercriminals can use this stolen information for financial compensation and identity theft
  • Companies can use this information for marketing or insurance contracts
  • Governments can use this information for spying on and tracking people

Faked Car Data

Digital information can be modified and faked. By altering data such as pollution tests or performance, companies can take advantage of the results to increase sales. Similarly, drivers could modify car statistics such as distance traveled to fool insurance companies or future buyers.

Car Theft and Key Fob Hacking

Key fob hacking is a technique to allow an intruder to enter a car without breaking in. This technique is widely known by attackers and can be done easily with cheap hardware. The attack consists of intercepting the signal from a wireless key to either block the signal to lock the car or replay the signal to gain access.

One variant of the attack uses a jammer to block the signal. The jammer interferes with the electromagnetic waves used to communicate with the vehicle, blocking the signal and preventing the car from locking, leaving access free to the attacker. Some jammers have a range of more than 500 meters.

Key fob jammer.

Another attack intercepts the signal sent by the key and replays it to open the door. Auto manufacturers protect against this kind of attack by implementing security algorithms that avoid simple replays with same signal. Each signal sent from the key to the car is unique, thus avoiding a replay. However, one proof of concept for this attack blocks the signal to the car and stores it. The driver’s first click on the key does not work but is recorded by the attacker. The driver’s second click is also recorded, locking the car but giving two signals to the attackers. The first signal recorded, which the car has not received, is used to unlock the door. The second signal is stored for the attacker to use later.

Entering by the (CAN) Back Door

Autos use several components to interact with their parts. Since the end of the 20th century, cars have used the dedicated controller area network (CAN) standard to allow microcontrollers and devices to talk to each other. The CAN bus communicates with a vehicle’s electronic control unit (ECU), which operates many subsystems such as antilock brakes, airbags, transmission, audio system, doors, and many other parts—including the engine. Modern cars also have an On-Board Diagnostic Version 2 (OBD-II) port. Mechanics use this port to diagnose problems. CAN traffic can be intercepted from the OBD port.

The on-board diagnostic port.

An external OBD device could be plugged into a car as a backdoor for external commands, controlling services such as the Wi-Fi connection, performance statistics, and unlocking doors. The OBD port offers a path for malicious activities if not secured.

Spam and Advertising

Adding more services to connected cars can also add more security risks. With the arrival of fully connected autos such as Teslas, which allow Internet access from a browser, it is feasible to deliver a new type of spam based on travel and geolocation. Imagine a pop-up discount as you approach a fast-food restaurant. Not only is this type of action likely to be unwanted, it could also provide a distraction to drivers. We already know spam and advertising are infection vectors for malware.

Malware and Exploits

All the ECUs in an auto contain firmware that can be hacked. Cars employ in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems to control audio or video among other functions. These systems are increasing in complexity.

An in-vehicle infotainment system.

MirrorLink, Bluetooth, and internal Wi-Fi are other technologies that improve the driving experience. By connecting our smartphones to our cars, we add functions such as phone calls, SMS, and music and audiobooks, for example.

Malware can target these devices. Phones, browsers, or the telecommunication networks embedded in our cars are infection vectors that can allow the installation of malware. In 2016, McAfee security researchers demonstrated a ransomware proof of concept that blocked the use of the car until the ransom was paid.

A proof-of-concept IVI ransomware attack on a vehicle.

The ransomware was installed via an over-the-air system that allowed the connection of external equipment.

Third-Party Apps  

Many modern cars allow third parties to create applications to further connected services. For example, it is possible to unlock or lock the door from your smartphone using an app. Although these apps can be very convenient, they effectively open these services to anyone and can become a new attack vector. It is easier to hack a smartphone app than a car’s ECU because the former is more affordable and offers many more resources. Car apps are also vulnerable because some third parties employ weak security practices and credentials are sometimes stored in clear text. These apps may also store personal information such as GPS data, car model, and other information. This scenario has already been demonstrated by the OnStar app that allowed a hacker to remotely open a car.

Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications

Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology allows communications between vehicles on the road, using a wireless network. This technology can aid security on the road by reducing a car’s speed when another vehicle is too close, for example. It can also communicate with road sign devices (vehicle to infrastructure). That transmitted information improves the driving experience as well as the security. Now imagine this vector invaded by destructive malware. If the V2V system becomes a vector, a malicious actor could create malware to infect many connected cars. This sounds like a sci-fi scenario, right? Yet it is not, if we compare this possibility with recent threats such as WannaCry or NotPetya that targeted computers with destructive malware. It is not hard to predict such a nightmare scenario.

Conclusion

Connected cars are taking over the roads and will radically change how we move about. By enhancing the customer experience, the automotive and the tech industries will provide exciting new services. Nonetheless, we need to consider the potential risks, with security implemented sooner rather than later. Some of the scenarios in this post are already used in the wild; others could happen sooner than we expect.

References

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