No more jimmying doors with a Slim Jim, bricks through windows, extracting lock cylinders with a dent puller, or hot-wiring ignitions. Automobiles today are being built to include wireless capabilities that allow for remote unlock, remote start, and of course, there’s global positioning systems (GPS) and services like OnStar and ATX, which offer “telematics,” or information and communications technology. While these services appear relatively secure, researchers in controlled environments are searching for vulnerabilities.
OnStar offers “RemoteLink,” an application for the iPhone or Android, which allows Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick, or GMC owners to view real-time data including fuel range, gallons of gas remaining, lifetime miles per gallon (MPG), lifetime mileage, remaining oil life, tire pressure, and account information. Chevrolet Volt owners can view their car’s electric range, electric miles, MPG, and the battery’s state of charge. Users can also use the application to remotely perform certain commands, such as unlocking doors.
While all this new technology provides us with convenience and useful information, it may also leave use open to risk. Researchers in San Francisco have been able to access a car’s central computer processor through an Internet-connected car alarm, and in Seattle, researchers “blacked out the make and model of a car that offered multiple pathways for hackers a thousand miles away to send out GPS coordinates, open the doors, and have a colleague drive away without a key in the ignition.” And a New Jersey man has developed an iPhone app that lets him unlock cars and start engines by voice.
As with most technological advances, functionality and form come well before security. But now that researchers have demonstrated the frightening vulnerabilities inherent in cars’ computers, automobile manufacturers are working with companies like McAfee to develop firewalls that will protect the latest high-tech vehicles from hackers and thieves.