New virus targets on-board car computers

By Santosh Beharie

Owners of vehicles with onboard computers should brace themselves for an onslaught by hi-tech criminals who are causing havoc by infecting the devices with viruses.

Those with systems such as satellite navigation have been warned to secure the devices, after reports last week that the on-board computers of several Lexus models in the United States had been infected via cellphones.

And security experts in South Africa believe it is only a matter of time before local vehicles are targeted.

Ian Melamed, principal consultant at Shaya Technologies in Johannesburg, said computer viruses were now so widespread, they were starting to attack new devices such as cellphones and even on-board computers in cars.

“If a device can carry data, it can carry a computer virus,” he said.

Melamed said about 150 000 cars in the US had been affected last week.

“Many of the vehicles also had their security codes breached,” said Melamed, a former computer expert with Interpol. “And with our high car theft and hijacking rate, it is only a matter of time before car owners in South Africa become targets. It is only a matter of time before these criminals (in the US) brag about their achievements on the Internet and spread the information on how to spread the virus or breach a vehicle's computer security code.”

Many of the vehicles had satellite navigation systems linked to hands-free phone kits, via wireless Bluetooth technology and this was likely how the on-board systems of the cars had become infected, said Melamed.

“We are already starting to see a significant jump in the number of viruses affecting mobile devices such as cellphones and hand-held computers,” Melamed said. “As technology becomes more mobile, it is becoming increasingly important to guard against virus infections.

Although the viruses found on mobile devices are less advanced than those found on traditional computer networks, experts have warned that this will not be the case for long.

“We expect to see more elaborate viruses targeting mobile devices - viruses that are able to cripple those machines or steal the information housed in them,” said Melamed.

Melamed warned owners of such devices to always disable Bluetooth connectivity when possible.

“On-board devices in vehicles and mobile devices so readily available all pose a serious risk, once activated on a universal platform,” he said.

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