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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Car crash computing

What happens if hackers take over your car? Cyber Insider worries that
we’re not in a position to deal with this scenario

CURRENTLY, IF YOU get distracted while driving and pile your car into a tree, it’s easy to know where to put the blame, for you, the police and your insurance company.

Now, imagine it’s the very near future, and you’ve got a fancy internet-connected car with loads of built-in driving aids that are designed to make things safer. You’re happily driving along when hackers take over your car and force it off the road. What happens then? Are you still to blame, as you were in control of
the vehicle at the time? Will an insurance company pay out? Or is it the fault of the manufacturer? It seems this is a future that we’re unequipped for. Not manufacturers, not the police, not insurance companies and not the users.

Sadly, the worry about cars getting hacked isn’t something in the future; it’s happening now. Recently, security researchers at Keen Security Lab demonstrated how they could remotely control a Tesla Model S and engage the brakes. That’s pretty terrifying: imagine the harm this could cause on a busy motorway if your car pulled to a sudden and abrupt halt. Fortunately, in this case, Keen Security Lab told Tesla about the exploit, so that it could be fixed before it could be exploited in the wild. With a recent firmware update, Tesla has now made it much harder to hack its cars, but the fact that the flaw was there in the first place is worrying. It’s likely that other manufacturers will make similar mistakes, opening up their vehicles to similar issues.

Before we get too many cars on the road that can be remotely controlled, it’s clear that we need the legislation to deal with any potential problems. First, we need rules to ensure the safety of cars, and a security requirement for all vehicles sold.

After all, we wouldn’t have cars on the street that leaked fuel and might explode; we shouldn’t have cars on the street that can be remotely controlled. As with the
recent company hacks, such as Yahoo! (and as pointed out in this very column last month), two-factor authentication should be used with cars. This isn’t foolproof, but entering a second auto-generated code into a car before it accepts remote control could prevent a lot of problems.

Hackers do have an annoying way of bypassing security checks, and no software is 100% secure. In these cases, the driver of the car is clearly not at fault, and vehicle manufacturers may have to face up to the fact that they’re going to have to pay into a central fund to deal with any compensation claims.

Insurance companies are also going to have to be upfront about how they’d deal with damage caused by hackers. I’ve a feeling that premiums may go up or that insurance companies will worm their way out of covering hacker-caused damage.

It’s not just hackers that want to control your car; the police also want to get in on the act. Talking to the London Assembly’s police and crime unit, Sir Bernard
Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, described how he’d like his detectives to have the ability to slow and stop a car automatically.

“My ideal scenario would be that we’d have a device that slowed down the car in front. If there was a way of intervening in the electronic management of the car – it may sound far-fetched, but these things can be developed... Now cars have got more electronic brains – that would be a great opportunity to safely slow down the vehicle in front,” said Hogan-Howe.

It’s an interesting idea. Streets where a stolen car, or one with suspects in, could be slowed and stopped safely will no longer see dangerous high-speed chases. But practically, there’s no way of implementing this kind of technology without introducing a backdoor. As we’ve seen in the past, a backdoor that can be used for good can also be used by hackers.

Although Hogan-Howe hasn’t yet called for this kind of control, it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before someone in the government does. As we’ve seen from the ill- considered Snooper’s Charter, the government isn’t very good at legislating for new technology, and can make things worse by insisting on weakening security.

Internet-connected cars should be the future, but we have to progress carefully to avoid unintended consequences. As well as legislating to ensure car safety, we do need to work out how this technology can best prevent crime.

Largely, it seems sense for the police to work with car owners and manufacturers to get what law enforcement needs. For example, if an owner reports a car as stolen, they could instruct the manufacturer to release tracking information to the police. In turn, the police could request the manufacturer to send a ‘kill’ command to the car, so that when it stops naturally, it will no longer move.

There’s a lot to discuss and a lot to be done, and these issues have to be considered now; we can’t let unfettered progress go ahead without understanding the consequences.

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