A U.S. senator has asked 20 automobile manufacturers how each plans to stave off wireless hacking attempts on vehicle computer systems, as well as prevent violations of driver privacy.
"I write to request information regarding your company's protections against the threat of cyberattacks or unwarranted invasions of privacy related to the integration of wireless, navigation and other technologies into and with automobiles," wrote Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass, in a letter to Daniel Akerson, CEO of General Motors, on Monday (Dec. 2).
Markey's questions imply that he wants carmakers to apply computer-industry security processes, including implementation of anti-virus software, incident logging, incident-response planning, software vulnerability patching and third-party penetration testing — the last of which would stage real hacker attacks on mass-production vehicles.
"Today's cars and light trucks contain more than 50 separate electronic control units (ECUs), connected through a controller area network (CAN) or other network," Markey said. "Vehicle functionality, safety and privacy all depend on the functions of these small computers, as well as their ability to communicate with one another."
Identical letters were also sent to the heads of the North American divisions of Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar Land Rover, Lamborghini, Mazda, Mercedes Benz, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo. (Audi, Lamborghini, Porsche and Volkswagen share ownership.)
Car hacking isn't just in the movies
Markey, one of the half-dozen lawmakers on Capitol Hill who has demonstrated a clear understanding of computer technology, cited research done earlier this year by two Pentagon-funded "white hat" hackers.
"In a recent study that was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)," Markey wrote, "Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek demonstrated their ability to directly connect to a vehicle's computer systems, send commands to different ECUs through the CAN and thereby control the engine, brakes, steering and other critical vehicle components."
Miller, whose day job is at Twitter, and Valasek, who works for Seattle security firm IOActive, used the Pentagon's grant money to open up the dashboards, and then take control, of a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape.
Because the duo plugged laptops into the cars' wiring, the vulnerabilities they found wouldn't be covered by Markey's requests for information, which concern wireless access to vehicle computer systems.
However, because Ford and Toyota dismissed Miller and Valasek's research as unrealistic and unlikely to take place in the real world, it made the companies' responses fair game for Markey's questions.
"Both companies reportedly noted that the researchers directly, rather than wirelessly, accessed the vehicles' computer systems," Markey wrote, "and referred to the need to prevent remote hacking from a wireless device."
As Markey then noted, vehicle hacks have indeed accessed car systems wirelessly. Other hacks have used methods that didn't require digging into dashboards or getting under hoods.
In the past few years, white-hat hackers have started cars using text messages, modified smartphone apps and specially crafted audio CDs. Real criminals have used mechanics' diagnostic tools to steal luxury vehicles.
Tough questions for car makers
Markey's security-related questions ask each manufacturer:
— How many vehicles in its 2013 and 2014 production fleets have wireless access.
— What kind of consumer-accessible vehicle computer systems are present, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, smartphone integration, Web browsers, OnStar and similar cellular systems, as well as vehicle-to-vehicle communications.
— Whether the vehicles have been subjected to third-party penetration tests.
— Whether any kind of dedicated security technology is in place.
— What kind of security breaches have already occurred.
— Whether the company has procedures to mitigate incidents and push out software patches.
The senator also asked several privacy-related questions, including how each company collects, stores and distributes information collected by in-car systems relating to driver behavior and history, navigation, location, speed and mileage.
Markey wants to know whether such information is shared with law enforcement, debt-collection agencies or insurance providers, collected by auto dealers or auto-rental companies or sold to third parties.
In a series of questions that affect both security and privacy, Markey asks how many vehicles contain technology, such as General Motors' OnStar, which could remotely shut down a vehicle, and whether customers were made aware of such features.
The senator asks that each company respond to his questions by Jan. 3.
The Auto Alliance, an association of auto manufacturers whose 12 members were all sent Markey letters, issued a pre-emptive statement that "cybersecurity is among the industry's top priorities and the auto industry is working continuously to enhance vehicle security features."
The two-page statement cited the reliability and advantages of in-car computing, as well as cooperation in research and development with other transportation industries, but did not answer Markey's questions.