Johannesburg - Geeks gone bad. Whether they’re leaking top-secret military documents on the web, or weaseling their way into your Twitter account to post dodgy weight-loss links, computer hackers have come a long way since sci-fi flicks of the ’90s, and their next target could be your car.
With modern automotive computer systems there’s a fear that the time is drawing near when hackers will be able to tap into your car and operate it by remote control. Last week I was invited to an IT security conference where a couple of said geeks (one is a security engineer at Twitter... funny that) were to demonstrate an actual car hack. But it wasn’t at all what I expected.
There I was waiting for a vehicle of some sort to appear driverless through a cloud of smoke, operated remotely by a pimply nerd, typing commands fervently into a laptop keyboard from across the stage. Instead I got a powerpoint presentation and a few amateur video clips of some recent car “hacks” from America.
Basically these guys are able to inject bugs, or glitch codes rather, into a modern car’s electronic nervous system. It’s obviously a complicated process, and one that’s way over my mechanically-minded head, but to the degree that the dashboards were dismantled in the cars concerned and what looked like miles of cabling strewn across the cabins, this isn’t exactly the stuff of parking-lot pranks.
STONE AGE OF CAR HACKING?
But then it’s not exactly the stuff of potential terrorist attacks either. After literally hacking an interior to pieces, and figuratively hacking its CAN-bus system (the techie name for most current cars’ computer brains), it’s possible to make a car’s lights flicker, speedometer malfunction and, at worst, steering twitch before the “brain” realises something’s up and takes control again. I’m no IT specialist, but it looked to me as though we’re in the stone age of car hacking.
That said, there are rumours of a group of students who remotely affected a car via Bluetooth systems and wireless networks a few years ago; but the fact that their findings were closely guarded raises questions about the research’s validity.
Either way, the more complex cars become the more possible it may be for bad guys to exploit potential weaknesses and I think this was the point of the demonstration – a technological warning shot to carmakers who may be slacking in on-board systems protection.
If a car’s accelerator, steering and brakes are all controlled electronically (and they are in many cars), it may one day be possible for those with sinister intentions to remotely control one, or many, into harmful situations.
I also think, however, that if carmakers are clever enough to create these modern motoring marvels, that they’re clever enough to stay one step ahead of bad guys and computer geeks alike.
Let’s hope so anyway.