Securing The Car

Automotive security challenges are mounting — but so are the solutions to protect against them.


“The bigger and more high tech a company is, the easier it is to use the front door.” –Nomi, Sense8

As the quote above — from the Netflix sci-fi show Sense8 — reminds, as technology as infiltrated our lives as never before, ‘bad guys’ will try to get access to places we don’t want them to, and once they figure out how, it can be easy to cause a lot of damage by using the very system meant to keep them out.

Trying to keep them out is a challenge, but not impossible.

In cars, the lessons here are painful, and unfortunately plentiful, as this, this, and this describe.

Joe Hupcey, Questa product marketing manager at Mentor Graphics said instead of keeping your car keys in the freezer, you’re better off storing them in an anti-static bag or a tin box. “Before all these electronics came along there were some design measures manufacturers took to defend against coat hangers unlocking car doors, and those were somewhat effective — it can still be done with a Slim Jim, and things like that — the point is you’re never going to be completely effective. You can go a long way with the right measures to make it hard so someone has to have real skill to be able to do a given attack, or classically, hotwiring a car.”

In a nutshell, you make it more difficult and you make it take a lot of time, and in that time you can conceivably identify that you’re being attacked and call the police. It’s about whether the hacker can interrupt the path of the vehicle, disrupt the driver while the car is in motion, he said.

Malicious hackers take either a physical or virtual path into the system they are breaking into. Hupcey observed that some will try to argue that physical access is hard or somebody is bound to notice it — but he’s not so sure about that. “If somebody has time while you’re at work to add something to your car, I’m kind of skeptical of people that are so dismissive that, ‘Oh, it takes a long time to get to the diagnostic port.’ All vehicles now have the onboard diagnostic port for vehicle diagnostics. I think physical attacks like that are possible. You have to know what you’re doing, but yes, they are possible.”

As such the auto manufacturers have to make this more difficult, he stressed. “If the hacker just plugs into the standard diagnostic port, they can run amok in the car, but it’s another thing if somebody comes in and has to splice a wire and add in their own third-party equipment to hijack a car – that’s a different animal. That’s way beyond what the reasonable manufacturers tests have to do but they should if somebody has access to the diagnostic port — which is just about anybody. It should at least have software protection and even hardware protection to block unauthorized access. And so much the better in the wireless — it should be a similar arena where there is a way to take all the precautions possible, and as you learn a new flaw it should be patched promptly.”

Some of this is hard to do, Hupcey admitted. “The jeep into the ditch thing was hard for those engineers to find the path. The trick is once you found that path it is an easy path for someone to replicate and in some cases it is actually quite easy and that is the scary part. The experts will always be able to figure out away and there is always good old-fashioned social engineering – getting buddy buddy with the developer or whoever, and before you know it, you know their mothers maiden name and you’re in.  But at least you can limit those things to make it hard – it’s never going to be perfect but you need to make it hard.”

Automakers are going to start learning the lesson that if you’re not thinking ahead you might have to retire the whole vehicle or the user accepts that flaw, he continued. “There is modularity that can be built-in. With automotive Ethernet just like with conventional ethernet they didn’t build security into the Ethernet for a reason – they wanted to keep the performance high. In the case of modular design it’s fine because now you won’t have to replace the communication network in the car — you just add the right security layers and firmware protection so you won’t have to replace the vehicle. The nice thing about a standard like automotive ethernet – it might be overkill to open your window with automotive Ethernet versus the simpler way which is a very simple two wire solution but in the end because you cannot security layers on top of automotive Ethernet very easily you might have to live with the overkill and be done with it.”

Going forward, automakers will get with the program and adopt some of the best practices that are precedented from aviation and security industries, because — the good news is — there is a way around the security problems that exist in today’s automotive systems.