Hacking into traffic lights with a laptop is apparently scarily easy
In a getaway from the perfect crime, the villains on the big screen need to be able to weave in and out of traffic past all green lights. Need for speed car chases in movies like "The Italian Job" or "Live Free or Die Hard" include hackers controlling the traffic lights for the perfect escape.
Researchers have found that hacking into these systems can really be done in reality. According to security researchers from the University of Michigan, hacking into traffic lights can be done, and done with ease.
"With the appropriate hardware and a little effort, [a hacker] can execute a denial of service attack to cripple the ﬂow of trafﬁc in a city, cause congestion at intersections by modifying light timings, or even take control of the lights and give herself clear passage through intersections," the research says.
Led by computer scientist J. Alex Halderman, the team of security researchers hacked about 100 wireless networked traffic lights and successfully changed the light commands.
The researchers presented their findings, "Green Lights Forever: Analyzing the Security of Traffic Infrastructure," at the Workshop on Offensive Technologies (WOOT) at USENIX Security 2014.
They found that the traffic light system was easy to hack because of three main reasons: unencrypted wireless signals used, default usernames and passwords and the use of a traffic controller, which is the machine that controls lights and walk signs.
Having no encryption means hackers and even bored teenagers could get into the network to do silly things like change road signs. Having defaults left on the system is leaving the network open for attack. The machines used are available on the Internet and easy to use, providing "no security whatsoever."
To hack into traffic lights, a person would need a laptop and wireless card that operated on the same 5.8-gigahertz frequency as the traffic lights. This would grant the hacker access to the entire unencrypted network system of lights.
"Our attacks show that an adversary can control traffic infrastructure to cause disruption, degrade safety, or gain an unfair advantage," writes the team. They note that they received permission from local road authorities to conduct their research.
Hackers would be able to set all the lights green or set all lights to red to "cripple the flow of traffic" and cause chaos, just like gamers can in the video game "Watch Dogs."
The security researchers conclude that the industry needs to understand the importance of security and make it a priority, updating their system to reflect this. The main point is there is a "lack of security consciousness" in the field.