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Hackers to release techniques for attacking Toyota Prius, Ford Escape

Software experts say they found ways to force cars to brake or accelerate suddenly

Published July 29, 2013
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Computer hackers claim to have taken control of a Toyota Prius, steering the car and applying its brakes, and of a Ford Escape, disabling its brakes at low speeds.

Charlie Miller, a security researcher with Twitter, and Chris Valasek, director of security intelligence at IOActive, took over some of the car’s systems using a laptop computer connected to its OBD (on-board diagnostic) port, and were able to drive it using a video-game controller.

Miller and Valasek say they will present detailed findings at Def Con 21 hacking convention in Las Vegas on Friday. They have compiled detailed blueprints of the techniques in a 100-page white paper, following several months of research they conducted with a grant from the U.S. government.

The two “white hats” — hackers who try to uncover software vulnerabilities before criminals can exploit them — will also release the software they built for hacking the cars at the Def Con hacking convention in Las Vegas this week.

They said they devised ways to force a Toyota Prius to brake suddenly at 128 kph, jerk its steering wheel, or accelerate the engine. They also say they can disable the brakes of a Ford Escape traveling at slow speeds, so that the car keeps moving no matter how hard the driver presses the pedal.

“Imagine what would happen if you were near a crowd,” said Valasek.

But it is not as scary as it may sound at first blush.

They were sitting inside the cars using laptops connected directly to the vehicles’ computer networks when they did their work. So they will not be providing information on how to hack remotely into a car network, which is what would typically be needed to launch a real-world attack.

The two say they hope the data they publish will encourage other white-hat hackers to uncover more security flaws in autos so they can be fixed.

“I trust the eyes of 100 security researchers more than the eyes that are in Ford and Toyota,” said Miller, a Twitter security engineer known for his research on hacking Apple Inc’s App Store.

Toyota Motor Corp spokesman John Hanson said the company was reviewing the work. He said the carmaker had invested heavily in electronic security, but that bugs remained — as they do in cars of other manufacturers.

“It’s entirely possible to do,” Hanson said, referring to the newly exposed hacks. “Absolutely we take it seriously.”

Ford Motor Co spokesman Craig Daitch said the company takes seriously the electronic security of its vehicles. He said the fact that Miller’s and Valasek’s hacking methods required them to be inside the vehicle they were trying to manipulate mitigated the risk.

“This particular attack was not performed remotely over the air, but as a highly aggressive direct physical manipulation of one vehicle over an elongated period of time, which would not be a risk to customers and any mass level,” Daitch said.

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