Cars Can Be a Rich Target for Information Thieves

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July 22, 2020

Picture a sedan traveling along an interstate highway anywhere in America. It has Bluetooth capability, allowing the driver to make and receive phone calls without taking her hands off the steering wheel.

The contacts stored on her smartphone are accessible from a menu displayable on the dashboard, allowing her to call a friend with one press of a button. Just as easily, she can choose songs stored on her phone or scan radio stations until she finds one carrying the Lions game.

The car also has a navigation system that shows her present location and how to get to unfamiliar destinations.

But all of these modern conveniences can make information available to skilled cyber criminals.

A recent report by British price comparison company Uswitch showed that cyber attacks on vehicles in the United Kingdom that are connected to computer networks had grown seven-fold between 2016 and 2019. The number of attacks grew by 99% just between 2018 and 2019.

Experts expect those numbers to get worse - 67% of new cars in the U.K. are connected now, but all of them will be by 2026.

While our driver cruising down the highway might be a little uncomfortable with the idea of a stranger knowing what she’s listening to, the problem is more serious than that. Multiple parts of a modern car are computer-controlled, including:
  • The mechanism for locking and unlocking the vehicle
  • Bluetooth technology
  • Onboard diagnostic systems
  • Steering and braking
  • Engine and transmission
  • Tire pressure monitoring
  • Airbags
Hackers break into vehicles by exploiting security flaws in their software, and those in smartphone apps that connect to them.

According to the Uswitch report, the average connected car runs on 150 million lines of computer code, 375 times the number of lines written in the Space Shuttle’s flight software. Hackers have been able to steal personal data from an airline by changing only 22 lines of code.

Hackers who infiltrate a car’s computer systems can wreak a lot of havoc. They can:
  • Scan for the signal that a key fob uses to communicate with a car and use that signal to unlock it, thus enabling an easy theft.
  • Take control of a climate control system, leading to a drained battery, which is a serious problem for electric vehicles.
  • Take control of braking and acceleration systems.
  • Turn the engine on and off.
  • Identify the vehicle’s location.
  • Access contact information (names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses).

How to Protect Your Car and Data

There are some steps drivers can take to protect themselves:
  • Limit the number of phone connections and personal data shared with the car.
  • Regularly install app security patches.
  • Download apps only from reputable sources such as the Apple and Android stores.
  • Monitor how a newly installed app affects the phone’s battery life. Malicious apps running constantly in the background will weaken the battery.
Modern cars offer multiple conveniences that make traveling more pleasant, but those conveniences come with risks. Keep these risks in mind when you choose a car and apps for your smartphone.
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