Old or new, your car may be ripe for hacking

TECHNICAL VULNERABILITES: Forget the Democratic National Committee, not even your old car is safe from hacking.
TECHNICAL VULNERABILITES: Forget the Democratic National Committee, not even your old car is safe from hacking.

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The increasing technological complexity of today’s cars opens them up to hackers looking to cause all kinds of trouble. Whether it’s simply breaking into a car to steal that laptop you left in the backseat or stealing the whole vehicle, technology is today’s equivalent of an unlocked door. If you think having an older car without today’s fancy tech makes your car safe, then think again.

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Most of the news about car hacking focuses on newer vehicles with high levels of connectivity. Jeep faced an issue last year with the Uconnect system in the 2014 Cherokee. The Jeep was hacked by researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller who took control of everything from the radio to the windshield wipers to the brakes. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles released a software update to take care of the vulnerability, but its existence was frightening proof of a growing problem.

New research shows even 20-year-old cars with considerably fewer modern features than that Cherokee are also at risk of being hacked. Yes, your old beater with nothing more than a broken cassette tape player and an AM/FM radio is actually vulnerable.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK found a problem with over 100 million Volkswagens going back as far as 1995. Computer scientist Flavio Garcia and his colleagues discovered a problem with wireless key fobs, now commonplace gadgets that hang from most of our key chains. Along with German engineering firm Kasper & Oswald, they presented their findings at the Usenix security conference held recently in Austin, Texas.

The hack involves intercepting the codes transmitted by a key fob and creating a clone of the original that gives thieves ready access to your vehicle. It doesn’t require a king’s ransom in hardware either. All that’s needed is a laptop and the right software or an Arduino board and radio receiver that cost all of $40.

The good news is that although the hardware is inexpensive, the process requires close proximity to the targeted vehicle. The hack can only be performed within about 300 feet, so no one is sitting in their house and hacking all the key fobs in the neighborhood. Sitting in a parking lot, however, thieves could do some damage. Now you have a new reason to worry about that van parked in the corner of the lot.

Before you panic and reach for the nearest hammer to smash your poor key fob to bits, take a deep breath and relax. Although your older car is ripe for hacking even if it doesn’t have an infotainment system or a single bit of modern connectivity, it’s technically been like that since the day you brought it home all shiny and new. It’s made it quite a few years without issue and is likely to make it a good many more.

Simply because a car is hackable doesn’t mean that it will be hacked. There was a time when you could easily break into a car with nothing more than a metal coat hanger and we weren’t all in a panic about our cars being stolen. Look at hacking as the latest tool in a car thief’s bag. It’s simply a matter of the tools of the trade changing with the times.

The one big difference is the ability for hackers to potentially take control of your car. It’s frustrating to think of your car being stolen, but it’s not inherently frightening. The thought of someone taking control of your car while you’re behind the wheel and your family is in the backseat is another story. Automakers are scrambling to stay ahead of hackers and the key fob vulnerability shows they’re foundering.

It’s not comforting to hear your car can be hacked, but as the price of the equipment to do the job comes down and the tech-savviness of the average person increases, even the most well-protected systems are going to have issues. Vulnerabilities are out there and the right people with the right resource are going to take advantage of the opportunity.

The key fob hack provides only access to the vehicle, but no way of controlling it when you’re behind the wheel. Thieves can use it to steal your stuff or steal your car, but when you’re driving with one of these key fobs, you’re still the one in control of your vehicle.

It’s never a good idea to leave valuables in your car and this hack gives you just one more reason not to leave your laptop sitting in the backseat. If you’re really worried, then consider ditching that key fob and opening your car the old fashioned way with a key.

A car is only so secure and there’s nothing that will guarantee no one will break in and steal your stuff. It is, after all, a metal box with glass windows and glass is breakable even by someone who doesn’t know a thing about hacking.