Security experts warn of auto-safety hacking concerns

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While automated safety features might soon be responsible for keeping a good number of us alive when on the roadways of the world, they also present a potentially dangerous opportunity for hackers, who could theoretically take control of the features and turn them off at inopportune times. Perhaps more worryingly though, they could be used to theoretically control a person’s car without giving them the ability to take back the wheel.

Head of the AA, Edmund King, said that this was something his company was particularly concerned about and that it was something that auto-makers would need to take very seriously in the future.

“You’re getting cars that are connected to the internet 24 hours a day. If cybercriminals targeted automobiles like they’re targeting other things we’d be in for a hard and fast ride,” he said (via The Independent). “The more cars rely on technology, particularly remote technology, the more there is to get at.”

While it will be some time (at least a decade or more) before lots of fully automated vehicles are seen on British or other countries’ roads, the worry is that already quite widespread safety features like smart cruise control, lane assist and autonomous emergency braking, could be used by hackers to cause havok, by hacking brakes to apply automatically, or send cars careening out of lanes. There hasn’t been much in the way of proof of concept with this – beyond showing that hard access to a car makes it possible – but there is a real potential for this sort of attack in the future.

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Perhaps more worryingly, is the issue of security problems going unchecked for some time, allowing faulty systems to be continually distributed, giving hackers access to thousands of security-lax vehicles at once. That sort of problem could lead to a large scale attack in one go, which Mr King believes could be used by terrorists.

Fortunately, companies like Apple and Google are becoming much more heavily involved in the auto-industry, thanks to the inclusion of their CarPlay and Android Auto (respectively) systems. If those companies are given control over a car’s digital security, it would likely put a lot of people at ease, as while neither company is immune to digital security problems, they have a lot more experience with dealing with them than car manufacturers do.

In these new infotainment systems, information will come through approved applications, keeping the system quite closed. While Apple may have its wagons circled more than Google in that respect, as long as drivers stick to downloading applications from approved app stores and don’t jailbreak the systems, chances are they will be relatively safe.

Time will tell however whether this will be a real concern on a wide scale, or if isolated incidents will be more common.

Image source: Mikael Altemark

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.