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Car hacking: why it could be a major issue in the future

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October 7th 2021 info

It may seem like science fiction, but car hacking is a real issue. Modern vehicles, thanks to their advanced infotainment integrations, are filled with our data. When we factor in internet and in-car payment options, our cars are mobile opportunities for hackers.

When do you think car hacking began? Many believe it’s a very recent issue, but evidence of car hacking can be traced back to 2005. It’s a crime that has been around for 16 years, and criminals have found sneakier ways to do it in 2021.

Below, we discuss what car hacking is, how it happens and the methods you can use to protect yourself.

What is car hacking?

According to Upstream, there were over 200 unique cyber-attacks on vehicles in 2020 alone. These attacks impacted a wide variety of car makes and models – car hacking can influence any driver at any time.

Car hacking, however, is a broad umbrella. What is car hacking, exactly? Can cars be hacked entirely? Are these hacks small?

The phrase refers to any exploitation of vulnerabilities in the software, hardware and communications of vehicles. The best example is when two professional hackers – Marc Rogers and Kevin Mahaffey – showcased how they could take control of a Tesla Model S at the 2015 DEF CON hacking conference.

By exposing vulnerabilities, the pair of hackers could fully control the car through an iPhone. They even managed to install a backdoor into the Tesla system where hackers could control the vehicle at any time, even when driving. Before showcasing the hack, they worked with Tesla to fix it, but it remained a strong example of the dangers of car hacking.

Another example from the same year is from security professionals Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek. The pair managed to remote control a Jeep Cherokee from a house 10 miles away using a laptop. The driver, who was in on the experiment, had his Jeep completely breakdown on a busy motorway after the pair killed power to his vehicle.

However, companies work diligently to patch any possible security issues with their cars, and it takes a talented hacker to compromise a vehicle. Events like the above are still rare. Reducing the dangers of hacking relies primarily on educating the public on the methods to prevent it.

Signs of a car being hacked

Before we discuss the signs of a car being hacked, we must first discuss the types of car hacks out there, as well as what they do. Through understanding the most popular car hacks, drivers can identify the signs earlier.

In total, there are a few notable car hacks you should know.

Vehicle diagnostics hack

Diagnostic tools allow mechanics to identify issues with a car quickly. These tools are essentially small computers, presenting information to mechanics and auto professionals smoothly.

These diagnostic tools need gaps in a car’s security to work. While small, hackers expose these gaps. However, the hack is likely to occur from the maintenance shop itself.

Criminal back-alley mechanics can manipulate the vehicle diagnostics data to present fake results, allowing them to charge customers for “repairs” they don’t need. They do this via an OBD port.

To avoid this hack, choose a reputable, licenced mechanic when doing your MOT or repairs. Purchasing an OBD lock can help, too.

Smartphone and infotainment breaches

Many of us connect our smartphones to our cars. From hands-free calls to music control to traffic alerts to paying for goods, our 5G-connected phones are essential sources of in-car infotainment.

In fact, drivers trade $230 billion in commerce on their daily commutes. While exciting, this also presents an opportunity for hackers. If they can access your car, they can access your phone, meaning they can then access your sensitive payment information.

To protect against this, ensure you don’t go on any dangerous websites with your phone and only connect it to your car when necessary. Regular updates, avoiding dodgy apps and following common sense online can go a long way to preventing this.

Wireless key hacks

Wireless keys are becoming more and more nuanced as cars develop. From keyless ignitions to phone-activated locks, these new conveniences present fresh opportunities for hacking.

Using radio repeaters, relays or phone hacks, hackers can alter the range of wireless keys and even unlock your car doors without the alarm going off. This practice is known as “relay theft”.

Thieves use a network of relay boxes near your home, which then receive your key’s signals when used. The box which picks up this signal then “relays” it to one near your car, thus unlocking it.

Usually, a person will think they’ve locked their car, but then the relay will unlock it. A thief can then do whatever they like with the car.

If possible, purchase a key fob blocker. Failing that, ensuring your car’s software is properly updated and using older security measures such as steering locks can be beneficial.

Brake interference

In 2015, Stefan Savage, a computer science professor, managed to hack a Corvette and was able to turn off its brakes via text message. This was done via the car’s in-built dongles, which then acted as a backdoor into a car’s braking system.

While rare, this is one of the scariest car hacks around, allowing hackers to stop your car in its tracks or prevent it from doing so.

Thankfully, real-life examples of this are rare but ensure you are protected by regularly updating your car’s software and security.

Forcing acceleration

Now, forcing your car to brake may be scary, but imagine forcing acceleration. Again, while rare, this is a very dangerous car hack.

In 2020, hackers were able to speed up a Tesla up to 50mph remotely. The hackers were able to do this by influencing the car’s cruise control, interfering with speed limit signs to make the car read them wrong. In testing, the hackers were able to make the Tesla read a 35mph speed sign as 85mph.

Hackers can also expose power locks in a car to slowly up the acceleration while the car is on. This occurred in an infamous Jeep hack in 2016, where hackers stopped the car from functioning on the motorway.

However, this type of hack is extremely rare as it doesn’t really serve a purpose for the hacker, though it does stand as an example of how far car hacking can go.

How to prevent your car from being hacked

Hacks are varied, but there are a few cast-iron rules to follow. In total, ensure you:

  • Regularly update your car’s software
  • Stay up to date with your car manufacturer’s news and recalls
  • Only use your car’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth when it is in use
  • Make sure your car’s Wi-Fi password is protected
  • Never plug in USBs or other devices into your car without checking them

For most drivers, you can prevent your car from being hacked by just following good common sense. Treat your car like a computer, and you’ll be safe.

Hacking and self-driving cars: is there a greater risk?

Self-driving and autonomous vehicles lean more on in-built tech than other cars. On the surface, this presents more opportunities for hackers to expose faults and opportunities. Can self-driving cars be hacked easier than non-autonomous vehicles? Well, not really.

However, much like modern computers and operating systems, self-driving cars need time to mature and adapt. Security is getting better every year, and while there may be hiccups, you can expect car manufacturers to pump more money and resources into their in-built security measures.

So, if you want to try a self-driving car, don’t be put off by hackers. Hacks are rare, and the industry is changing quickly.

Choose a reliable, used car as the first line of defence

Of course, car security starts with buying a reliable set of wheels. At findandfundmycar.com, we stock a range of used cars from trusted dealers from across the UK.

This means you can rest easy knowing your car is safe, plus we even have older options that have virtually no ways for hackers to exploit!

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