The nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog has published a report concluding that all the top 2020 cars have internet connections to safety-critical systems that leave them vulnerable to fleetwide hacks.
The group and experts warn that a fleetwide hack at rush hour could result in a 9-11-scale catastrophe with approximately 3,000 deaths.
The report, “Kill Switch: Why Connected Cars Can Be Killing Machines And How To Turn Them Off,” reveals that automakers have disclosed the high risk of such hacks to their investors, but are keeping the public in the dark as they market new features based on internet connections. For example, Ford disclosed to the Securities Exchange Commission in its 10K filing that the company and its suppliers have been the subject of a malicious hack, but the public is blind to the facts, according to the report.
“Connecting safety-critical systems to the internet is inherently dangerous design,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “American car makers need to end the practice or Congress must step in to protect our transportation system and our national security.”
The report warns: “Recent reporting about United States efforts to counter Russian cyber attacks with its own online infiltration indicate that we increasingly live in the era of cyber warfare. An attack targeting transportation infrastructure is a growing possibility. Most concerning is that automotive-industry executives are aware of these risks, yet are proceeding nonetheless to deploy these technologies, putting corporate profits ahead of consumer safety and national security.”
Consumer Watchdog’s report recommends that, as soon as possible, every connected car come with an internet “kill switch” that physically disconnects the internet from safety-critical systems. It concludes that future designs should completely isolate safety-critical systems from infotainment systems connected to the internet or other networks.
A group of more than 20 engineers and insiders from the auto industry helped with the preparation of the report, but they remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, according to Consumer Watchdog.
These are among the main findings of the group’s five-month investigation with car industry technologists:
- Most connected vehicles share the same vulnerability. The head unit (sometimes called the infotainment system) is connected to the internet through a cellular connection and also to the vehicle’s CAN (controller area network) buses. This technology dating to the 1980s links the vehicle’s most critical systems, such as the engine and the brakes. Experts agree that connecting safety-critical components to the internet through a complex information and entertainment device is a security flaw. This design allows hackers to control a vehicle’s operations and take it over from across the internet.
- By 2022, no less than two-thirds of new cars on American roads will have online connections to the cars’ safety-critical system, putting them at risk of deadly hacks. Automakers have many economic motivations to connect vehicles to the internet – from saving money on recalls by updating vehicle software over the air to collecting valuable data on how fast we drive to where we shop. While they market flashy new features, such as remotely starting cars from smartphones, technologists report the companies have not prepared for the grave security implications of a connected-car fleet.
- Technologists explain that using smartphone technology in cars – technology that was never designed to protect safety-critical systems – is a recipe for disaster. Expert hackers report that time and money are the only things that stand between them and hacking a fleet of cars. Software design practices that result in frequent hacks of everything from consumer electronics to financial systems cannot be trusted in cars, which can endanger not only the lives of their occupants, but also pedestrians and everyone else on the road.
- Connected cars have suffered more than half a dozen high-profile hacks in recent years. All have been benign demonstrations, not intended to cause harm. Hundreds more vulnerabilities have been reported to carmaker “bug bounty” programs. Experts report a hack of American vehicles designed to cause damage is inevitable without better security.
- The car industry’s response when vulnerabilities are exposed is to patch individual security holes and ignore the design problems that underlie them. Technologists have described the practice as attempting to address structural security problems by “using chewing gum and duct tape.”
- Car-hacking demonstrations to date always have focused on a single vehicle, but the networked nature of connected cars creates numerous avenues for a fleetwide attack. Viruses can spread vehicle-to-vehicle. Malicious Wi-Fi hotspots can infect any susceptible vehicle that passes within range. Cars can be infected with “sleeper” malware that wakes at a given date and time, or in response to an external signal, resulting in a massive coordinated attack.
- Security-critical components in cars are black boxes. Even the automakers themselves often do not know the origins of the software they use, nor their true risks. Vehicles from many major carmakers – including Tesla, Audi, Hyundai and Mercedes – rely heavily on software written by third parties. This includes open-source software, like Android, Linux, and FreeRTOS. This software often comprises contributions from hundreds or thousands of different authors around the world, and there is usually little accountability for flaws. For example, FreeRTOS, used in critical systems by Tesla, had major vulnerabilities discovered in October 2018, but Tesla never acknowledged using the software, the vulnerability or whether it patched the problem.
- The veil of secrecy surrounding automotive software and the ability to update it over the air without touching the vehicle lets automakers cover up safety problems and sloppy testing practices. Consumers are driving cars whose systems run on unfinished and under-tested software.
“Despite working on the problem for more than a decade, carmakers have proven incapable of creating internet-connected vehicles that are immune to hacking, which is the only standard that can keep consumers safe,” the report concludes. “With connected cars rapidly overtaking the market, consumers will soon have no haven from the online connections that threaten them.”
The report recommends numerous steps to safeguard the public, but its simple answer to the problems is that, as soon as possible, automakers should install 50-cent kill switches in every vehicle.
“Allowing consumers to physically disconnect their cars from the internet and other wide-area networks should be a national security priority,” Court said. “If a 9/11-like cyber-attack on Americans cars were to occur, recovery would be difficult because there is currently no way to disconnect our cars quickly and safely. The nation’s transportation infrastructure could be gridlocked for weeks or months. Mandatory kill switches would solve that problem.”