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Hacking: Coming Soon to a Car Near You?

by Paul-Martin Foss

Cars are increasingly becoming less mechanical and more electronic. Twenty years ago, many cars still had throttle cables that connected the accelerator pedal to the throttle. Nowadays the accelerator pedal sends an electronic signal to the car’s computer to give then engine more gas. Car systems are governed by computers that are constantly monitoring everything that is going on. And with lane detection technology and assisted braking becoming increasingly common, more and more aspects of driving are being taken over by computers. Self-driving technology is under development too. But are these rolling computers safe to use?

Car companies are good at making cars, but they’re not the best at protecting technology. It’s well-known that cars can be hacked remotely, allowing hackers to control every system within the car. They can disable the brakes and throttle, manipulate the climate control and radios, and mess with the navigation system. Despite that knowledge, it doesn’t appear that car companies take the threat seriously, as their cars continue to remain vulnerable to hackers.

The continued development and ultimate implementation of self-driving vehicles will likely require cars to communicate with each other in order to maintain safety, but that would continue to leave their internal networks vulnerable to intrusion. That raises the specter of hackers being able to take control of large numbers of vehicles remotely, allowing them to crash cars at will and create traffic mayhem.

While car companies will undoubtedly take more steps to protect their systems from hacking, the recent cyberattacks against Equifax, Deloitte, and the SEC make it clear that no computer system is safe from attack. Any computer network that can be created can be hacked by a hacker who has enough determination. Do enough consumers realize the risk that comes from increasing computerization of automobiles? Or are they so concerned with increasing their fuel economy and reducing their car’s emissions that they don’t give such things any thought?

Even government-mandated standards for cybersecurity will be no match for determined hackers. Technology will quickly outpace any legal or regulatory standards, but consumers will mistakenly think that they are protected because their cars meet the government standard. It’s one thing to own a desktop computer that could be vulnerable to hackers, as repair or replacement is relatively simple. But do you really want to risk getting hacked while you’re hurtling down the highway at 70 miles per hour? If not, consumers may want to start putting their feet down and resisting the continued computerization of their automobiles.

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