The Dangers of Connected Cars

By Special Guest
Harold Kilpatrick, Cyber Security Expert
June 25, 2018

Technology has transformed every single business sector over the last several decades. In some cases, these transformations have been largely behind the scenes and out of sight of most customers. However, in other cases, such as with the automobile sector, this change has been dramatic. The style of automobiles is one of those things that, like architectural and fashion styles, define the times in which they are designed and manufactured.

Now that technology has moved from the production line and into the car itself, this change is becoming even more pronounced. Thanks to the efforts of brilliant people working in a variety of different technical fields, we are on the brink of having fully connected traffic on the streets. This means that every car will know where every other car is. Therefore, they will be able to easily avoid collisions and optimize the route for every vehicle.

But no technology is without its risks. There are always unforeseen consequences to every new technology, which sometimes go as far as deliberately nefarious uses.

How Many Connected Cars are There?
There are already an estimated 21 million internet-connected cars on the roads today. While these cars are not interconnected with one another in the way that many envisage the vehicles of tomorrow would be, they ultimately form a large connected network of cars. By 2020, it is estimated that there will be 10 times as many connected cars on the road.

While there are a number of significant benefits to having interconnected traffic, there are also some potential dangers. There are now enough connected cars on the road, with more projected to join them, that the security implications need to be carefully considered.

Hacking Targets
Over the last several years, cybersecurity conferences have been dominated by the internet of things (IoT). The IoT consists of anything that is connected to the internet. A growing number of smart household appliances, including even children’s toys, are now utilizing internet connectivity in some way. There are a number of really cool and exciting things that everyday products can do once they are able to go online. However, any device that connects to the internet can be hacked.

Cybersecurity professionals have already demonstrated that many IoT devices are being produced with little to no cybersecurity features. This means that anyone can connect to the devices remotely and gain control of them – all they need is the right IP address, which is pretty easy to find out.

While the automobile industry has paid a little more attention to security, it has still taken a few high-profile demonstrations of potentially lethal exploits to get them to the point they are now –  and that’s still less than ideal. At one point, Chrysler was forced to recall 1.4 million jeeps after security professionals demonstrated the ability to take control of the vehicles remotely.

Spy Versus Spy
There are various concerns about what a malicious actor might do when in remote control of a vehicle. The exploits that security experts have demonstrated already show that, if they wished to do so, a skilled hacker could quite easily cause a fatal collision.

However, a growing number of cars are taking advantage of voice-assistants. This necessitates the inclusion of audio recording and monitoring equipment in the vehicle. If a hacker can gain access to the onboard software, they can surreptitiously turn on microphones and begin recording conversations.

The potential for monitoring does not stop there. GPS is a common feature of many vehicles now. Whether it’s because of the onboard GPS navigation software, or as an anti-theft/recovery method, it is becoming ever more common to be able to track the precise location of our vehicles. But again, someone with the motivation to do so could keep track of where you and your car are.

Even if no one is attempting to steal the data that your car collects about you, most of us have no idea what the automobile manufacturers themselves are doing with it. They tend to make vague promises about improving customer services and facilitating law enforcement investigations. However, given how much more conscious people today are about how their personal data is used, this may not be enough.

Staying Safe
If you own an internet-connected car, the most important thing to do is keep its software regularly updated. When new and serious exploits are discovered, manufacturers will issue a fix as soon as is possible. Your car should update automatically, but you can also check using the onboard software.

Technology is often a case of trade-offs. In the case of autonomous vehicles, their internet connectivity will inevitably introduce some security challenges. The good news is that the industry is finally waking up to this and starting to take their cybersecurity much more seriously.

About the author: Harold Kilpatrick is a cybersecurity consultant and a freelance blogger. He's currently working on a cybersecurity campaign to raise awareness about the threats that businesses and individuals can face online.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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