Car hacking is the future – and sooner or later you’ll be hit

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Car hacking is the future – and sooner or later you'll be hit

“Car companies are finally realising that what they sell is just a big computer you sit in,” says Kevin Tighe, a senior systems engineer at the security testing firm Bugcrowd.

It’s meant to be a reassuring statement: proof that the world’s major vehicle manufacturers are finally coming to terms with their responsibilities to customers, and taking the security of vehicles seriously.

But given where Tighe and I are talking, it’s hard not to be slightly uneasy about the idea that it’s normal to sit inside a massive computer and trust it with your life. We’re meeting at Defcon, the world’s largest hacking conference, just outside the “car-hacking village”, a recent addition to the convention’s lineup, where enthusiasts meet to trade tips on how to mess about with those same computers for fun and profit.

The village, one of a number of breakout areas (others include biohacking, lock picking and “social engineering” – the art and science of talking people into doing stuff they shouldn’t), was instituted last year. That was also the year that two researchers, from security consultancy IOActive and Twitter, turned car hacking from a vaguely theoretical pursuit into one with terrifying consequences.

At that year’s Defcon, Twitter’s Charlie Miller and IOActive’s Chris Valasek demonstrated they were able to wirelessly take over a Jeep. They used a laptop connected to the internet miles from the vehicle to seize control of it, cutting the brakes and transmission at the flick of a switch.

The hack sparked a worldwide recall for the affected cars (which included much of Fiat Chrysler’s range). It also exposed serious problems with how the car companies planned to handle such software flaws. Even though the hack could be executed remotely, it could only be fixed with physical access to the car, forcing Fiat Chrysler to post USB keys to affected owners, or ask them to bring their cars in for maintenance. Posting USB keys brought its own problems: plugging an untrusted USB key into anything, whether car or computer, carries serious risks. It’s also hard for anyone to easily verify that a drive received in the post is malware-free.

Some fixes were easier to carry out, though. Speaking at this year’s Black Hat conference in Las Vegas (think Defcon but in suits, taking place a few days earlier), Valasek and Miller – now both employed as researchers at Uber – revealed that one of the more effective changes Fiat Chrysler made was simply asking Sprint, the cellular provider that connected all the cars to the net, to block all incoming traffic.

“This made the vulnerability kind of go away,” Miller said, as Valasek pointed out it meant that the cars never really needed the incoming connections in the first place. The service had just been kept open because no one had thought to turn it off.

That’s good, because if it was still open, the situation would be much worse today than it was last year. Although the Jeep hack was spectacular, it came with severe limitations. The pair had managed to use a bug in the car’s entertainment system, which was connected to the net, to tunnel through to the supposedly secure internal network, which the various components of the car use to talk to each other, called the Can bus.

But simply having access to the network didn’t mean they were able to seize control of the car. Without the ability to stop the car sending its own messages, the hackers’ own commands were usually overruled by the car’s system, or simply recognised as a conflict that caused the car to err on the side of safety and turn off the feature altogether.

In 2015, they’d managed to tackle the problem by forcing the car into diagnostic mode, which allowed them far greater control. But most cars built since 2015 disable diagnostic mode when the car is in motion, meaning that the hacks can only be started when the car is travelling less than 5mph. “It’s a nice parlour trick,” said Miller, “but I don’t think it affects safety.”

So the pair’s past year has been spent working out whether that safety feature can be turned off. Bad news: it can.

The trick lies in working out how the various components talk to each other, and what they expect to hear over the Can bus. “There are times you can have conflicting messages and the car will do what you want,” Miller said. For instance, the way cruise control works in the Jeep means that, rather than sending a message saying “cruise control is on”, the bus instead says “the button to turn cruise control on is not pressed”. This means that one message inserted into the feed saying “the button to turn cruise control on is pressed” will enable cruise control without sparking a conflict internally (a breakthrough demonstrated with video of a panicky Valasek sitting in the passenger seat of an otherwise empty car rapidly accelerating to 40mph on a deserted rural road).

For other controls, such as direct control of the accelerometer or brakes, that simple approach doesn’t work. But after analysing how the system determined conflicts, the pair found a simple workaround. Each message sent on the Can bus has a number, which increments by one each time. If the system receives three or more messages with the same number, it declares a fault and throws the whole thing out.

But what the pair discovered is that if the attacker’s message is sent first, with the correct counter, then the real message gets ignored. And if the next message is one further incremented, then the system never fully goes into lockdown, allowing the attacker to fully control the car: they can turn the steering wheel, hit the gas or slam on the brakes at any speed. Testing that one on the same rural road ended up with the pair losing control and crashing into a ditch, where they’d presumably still be to this day if some locals with a pickup truck hadn’t happened to pass by.

There’s one saving grace to all this though: ever since Fiat Chrysler fixed the hole disclosed last year, such attacks can only be done with physical access to the car. That’s the company’s response to the research: “While we admire their creativity, it appears that the researchers have not identified any new remote way to compromise a 2014 Jeep Cherokee or other FCA US vehicles,” it said. It’s true, but the pair warn others not to dismiss their findings that quickly: if they hadn’t found the earlier bug, then the cars would still be open to just this sort of attack, and it would be much more damaging.

“All these attacks would have worked if you had a remote attack,” said Valasek. “It would have worked in 2015.” Valasek and Miller offered some simple fixes that would make doing what they did much harder: code-signing would make reprogramming the onboard computers much harder, while better intrusion detection would throw up alarms earlier in the process, and not be fooled by simply incrementing a counter.

But for Bugcrowd’s Tighe, the success of Valasek and Miller is proof of the opposite: not that the car’s internal processes should be more suspicious, but that it’s in their nature to be naive and open. Speed, he says, is of the essence in these systems. If the brake pedal says brake, it’s important that the brake pads not waste time checking that the message really came from the brake pedal: instead, they need to get on with the important business of braking.

Tighe thinks the solution lies in ensuring that unauthorised users can’t send messages on the Can bus in the first place, not wasting valuable time encrypting, signing, or reverifying messages sent between the internal processes. It’s an approach he says works well for military hardware, where the time penalty is even fiercer.

It’s also one that necessarily involves putting all your eggs in one basket, however. No one thinks the car’s internal computers should be completely open to outsiders. The question is how much damage they should be able to do if they can find a way in anyway.

Of course, that assumes that access to the car’s internal computers is needed for a malicious attacker to do harm. Another group of researchers at Defcon presented their own form of car hacking which uses the very smartness of modern automobiles as the weapon.

Three researchers, from China’s Zhejiang University and internet security company Qihoo 360, took aim at the battery of sensors that adorn modern cars – particularly those with rudimentary (or more advanced) automation features. “The reliability of the sensors directly affects the reliability of autonomous driving,” said Chen Yan. The death of Joshua Brown, whose Tesla hit the side of a truck while the car’s autopilot mode was engaged, underscores that: the car failed to see the white truck against the bright sky and ploughed into it.

Chen and his fellow researchers showed that artificially creating a similar situation might not be as hard as it should be. The three subjected a Tesla Model S and an Audi equipped with self-parking features to a battery of attacks designed to leave them blinded in all their senses.

Self-driving cars use a number of sensors, for various purposes. Ultrasound is used, like a bat’s echolocation, for determining the distance of close objects (useful for making sure you don’t hit a wall when reversing), while millimetre-wave radio is the core part of the radar component that lets the car map out the stretch of road immediately ahead of it (so you don’t end up rear-ending someone while using adaptive cruise control).

Those sensors, though, can be jammed, spoofed, or muted, and cars don’t tend to react well to them. Jamming involves drowning the sensors out with your own data; spoofing is trying to trick the sensor by blasting your own responses at it; while muting involves applying the same technique as used in noise-cancelling headphones to diminish the power of the original signal.

Unfortunately for the car manufacturers, the more complex techniques often aren’t necessary. Simply playing a loud enough ultrasound burst to drown out the echolocation, for instance, is remarkably effective. Rather than going into a failsafe mode and assuming that there’s an obstacle immediately in front, both the Audi and Tesla instead assume that there’s nothing for the next half-kilometre. Bravely or foolishly, one of the team demonstrated that fact by standing next to the car as it was driving towards the jammer. The car hit him, albeit slowly.

A similar, if more complex, attack worked on the radar. The team built a machine for generating radar interference, and were able to make a car simply disappear from the Tesla’s autopilot view. Importantly, neither attack led to a failsafe state: the car simply assumed there was nothing to see where it couldn’t see anything.

“Sensors should be designed with security in mind,” said Jianhao Liu, another of the three researchers, “so they should always think about intentional attacks, especially when the sensor is going to play a very important rule in self-driving cars.”

Following the collision in May, Tesla pointed out that its autopilot feature isn’t intended for fully autonomous driving. Drivers should be ready to take the wheel at any time. The company has downplayed the sensor attack. “We appreciate the work Wenyuan [Xu] and team put into researching potential attacks on sensors used in the autopilot system,” a spokesperson said. “We have reviewed these results with Wenyuan’s team and have thus far not been able to reproduce any real-world cases that pose risk to Tesla drivers.”

The response in the car-hacking village to the research was mixed. While some were happy that the research was being done, others saw it as less worthy than the genuine hacking, arguing that spoofing sensors isn’t really any different from causing car crashes by shining a laser into drivers’ eyes.

It’s hard to find unanimity among hackers on anything. People who use “herding cats” as the apotheosis of a tricky organisational challenge have never had to herd information security experts. But the group of people united by the motivation to push computer security to its absolute limit seem to agree on one thing, at least: car hacking is here to stay, and sooner or later, you’ll be hit too.