Researchers Hack Into Car With a Text Message

In an era of app-laden smartphones, there’s not much a phone can’t do these days. Indeed, researchers used one recently to hack into the computer system of a car, unlock the doors and start the engine. Is there an app for that?

New cars are equipped to engage in what’s called “machine-to-machine communication,” often abbreviated M2M, so they can offer a host of high-tech features, such as OnStar, hands-free calling, a direct connection with 911 after an accident and even a service that will unlock your car for you if you’ve locked your keys inside. Ford’s SYNC is a prime example.

These cars essentially have their own phone numbers via which they send out information and receive commands and firmware updates from service providers. So for example, when you get in an accident and the air bag deploys, that phone number sends out an alert over the cellular network to some sort of central monitoring station, which connects the car with 911. Had you locked your keys inside your car, a central station that you alert to the problem could send a command via the cellular network to the car to unlock the doors.

When researchers at iSEC Partners realized that this powerful mechanism was very poorly encrypted, it was only a matter of time before they tried it out, and sure enough, they texted their way into a car with only two hours of effort.

And if that’s not scary enough, it turns out that cars aren’t the only critical machine that uses cellular networks to communicate. Critical infrastructure (such as water treatment plants and smart grid systems), traffic lights and even video surveillance cameras all send and receive data and commands via cellular networks. And while security in all these devices is not uniformly as lax as the security in the car researchers hacked, operating companies’ ears had better perk up, because I certainly do not want to lose my electricity and clean water to a texting terrorist.

Do you think M2M companies have sufficient security measures in place? If not, what should they do to ensure our water stays clean and lights stay on?

Posted by Laura Williams on Aug 30, 2011

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