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Smart cars vulnerable to hacking, warns Queensland professor

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Present-day smart cars have the same security as a desktop from the 80's, which is to say, it is virtually non-existent. A professor from Queensland University in Australia, Andry Rakotonirainy, warns that even the most basic elements for security are not in place.

The lack of authentication, integrity, or confidentiality makes smart cars vulnerable to cyberattacks. Hackers may be able to control the vehicles remotely.

In fact, two American white hat hackers, with a grant from the U.S. Government, were able to take control of a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape, using only a laptop. They will publish the blueprints of how to gain access to these vehicles' systems in a 100-page white paper.

The development of the technology called CAN-BUS is the root of the security problems. It is normally located under the steering wheel of a smart car and is often referred to as the car's brains. It allows users to check the status and health of their car's systems, and to communicate with other vehicles with CAN-BUS.

The only thing a driver or vehicle owner needs to access CAN-BUS and the information it stores, is nothing more than a plug.

This technology will allow cars in the very foreseeable future to communicate with each other and adjust automatically to traffic conditions on the road. For example, if the car ahead brakes abruptly, the cars behind it will be able to compensate faster than a driver can react to prevent an accident.

Soon, cars may even be able to communicate with traffic lights at intersections in order to stop safely when the lights change in case the driver is distracted.

It is all these wireless communications between vehicles and the infrastructure around them that Rakotonirainy cautions against.

"A vehicle's communication security over wireless networks cannot be an afterthought and needs to be comprehensively considered at the early stages of design and deployment of these high-tech systems from the hardware, software, user and policy point of view," he said.

He adds, however, that at the present time, the threat of hackers seizing control of the smart car is still minimal since there is no obvious way to get money from it. But as the technology progresses, more attention must be put into the security of smart car systems from being accessed remotely.

Rakotonirainy wants to see the government and insurance companies get on board in ensuring that standard security and safety measures are developed and enforced in order to protect drivers and their smart cars from being open to attacks.

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