Hacking Self-Driving Car Technology Could Be Next Cybercrime

Oct 18, 2013 04:15 PM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

As manufacturers work to perfect autonomous cars, the new technology could be an opportunity for hackers, experts say.

Car hacking, where criminals can take control of your car from their laptops, could be the latest cybercrime, CNBC reported.

This new crime is increasingly becoming a bigger problem for car manufacturers and law enforcement agencies as in-car technology becomes more sophisticated.

Automakers predict cars could become fully autonomous by 2020. Thousands of semi-autonomous cars are already on the market; these vehicles contain in-car computer systems, or electronic control units, responsible for safety functions such as detecting skids, predicting crashes and performing anti-lock braking.

In-car technology is not hacker-proof, as tests by academics and "white hat" hackers--those who break into computer systems to highlight security issues--have shown, according to CNBC.

At the global "DefCon" hackers conference in Las Vegas in August, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek showed global security experts how they could take control of a 2010 Toyota Prius and Ford Escape model using just a laptop.

Demonstrating their Pentagon-funded work, the "hackers" were able to remotely take control of the cars' electronic smart steering, braking, displays, acceleration, engines, horns and lights. They could even make the fuel tanks show a full tank of gas when there wasn't--all with using an old Nintendo handset.

"Automobiles are no longer just mechanical devices. Today's automobiles contain a number of different electronic components networked together that as a whole are responsible for monitoring and controlling the state of the vehicle," Miller and Valasek stated in their research.

"Drivers and passengers are strictly at the mercy of the code running in their automobiles and, unlike when their web browser crashes or is compromised, the threat to their physical well-being is real," the authors stated.

"You cannot have safety without security."

In the U.S., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an auto cybersecurity research program investigating car hacking.

The director of the Europe's Cybercrime Centre, a body within the European Union's law enforcement agency Europol, Troels Oerting, told CNBC, "Everyone [in the car industry] wants to make cars more helpful--for them to help with steering, parking, breaking and even driving--but if you do this the downside is that someone will try to use this to their advantage and for criminals, this would generally be for profit or revenge."

Car makers are taking strides to make sure hackers have as tough a time as possible breaking into autonomous cars wirelessly.

"At Toyota, we take seriously any form of tampering with our electronic control systems," Toyota's public affairs manager, Cindy Knight, told CNBC. "We strive to ensure that our electronic control systems are robust and secure and we will continue to rigorously test and improve them."

There is no guarantee that a computer system is hack proof. "You will never know when criminals' knowledge keeps up with the improvements to the technology," said Troels Oerting, the director of the Europe's Cybercrime Centre, a body within the European Union's law enforcement agency Europol. "It's important that consumer and carmakers are aware of the downside to technological developments. You need people to be able to drive using this technology without fearing every five seconds that your car will be taken over."

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