Senators call for investigation of potential safety, security threats from connected cars

U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate potential widespread risk for consumers because of vulnerabilities in auto information and entertainment systems.

A week after it was revealed that a Chrysler Jeep could be hacked and remotely controlled, two U.S. senators have called for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate potential widespread risk for consumers.

In a letter to NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said they see potential vulnerabilities in auto information and entertainment systems.

"We were deeply troubled to learn that these software defects can be exploited by malicious hackers to potentially wreak havoc on our roads," the letter states. "These revelations highlight the acute risks now facing modern motorists as automakers continue to connect cars ever closer to the digital world."

Last week, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the world's seventh largest automaker, issued a recall notice for 1.4 million vehicles to fix a software hole that allowed hackers to wirelessly break into some vehicles and electronically control vital functions.

Markey criticized Chrysler's response to the revelation that its UConnect telematics or infotainment system had been wirelessly hacked.

"Despite knowing about this security gap for nearly nine months, Chrysler is only now recalling 1.4 million vehicles to fix [it], and there are no assurances that these vehicles are the only ones that are this unprotected from cyberattack," Markey said in a statement. "A safe and fully-equipped vehicle should be one that is equipped to protect drivers from hackers and thieves."

Using a cellular connection to the car, the hackers -- both security professionals -- demonstrated how they could remotely gain access to the UConnect telematics system in a 2014 Jeep Cherokee and control the entertainment system, brakes, transmission, ignition and other critical functions.

"We could have easily done the same thing on one of the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable vehicles on the road," Charlie Miller,  one of the two hackers, told Computerworld.

The NHTSA also said last week that it plans to look into how effective FCA's software patch will be in keeping its vehicles from being vulnerable to computer hackers.

While the defect was only discovered on Chrysler's Jeep UConnect head unit, the senators implored the NHTSA to look into cybersecurity vulnerabilities in other wireless connected cars to eliminate safety risks posed by malicious hackers.

The only solution is being aware an attack has happened

Egil Juliussen, research director for IHS Automotive, said the only way to truly protect connected cars and their myriad of embedded computer systems is to be able to detect an attack and stop it as it's happening. A major flaw in security strategy is that people assume hackers can't get through a system's perimeter security, but with enough effort, any firewall can be breached, Juliussen said.

"That's a basic principle for security."

Andrew McLennan, a former Visa executive and now president of embedded security vendor Inside Secure's mobile division, agreed with Juliussen, and said carmakers must first add cryptography to ensure that communications between software inside a device and between devices are authenticated.Car makers must also ensure that software is only allowed to run in the manner designed by the coder.

"Add in remote security monitoring to alert if there is a software or network breach," McLennan said. "This means you do not have to rely on trying to create white-list/black-lists for known attacks, the bad guys are always a step or two ahead of developers, and it's an arms race that has never yet been won in antivirus markets."

In their letter to the NHTSA, Markey and Blumenthal said modern vehicles are continuously expanding and advancing their connectivity for incorporating advanced systems for navigation, vehicle-to-vehicle communications and infotainment. With additional wireless connectivity, the number of potential avenues for cyberattacks will only increase, "and we are only just beginning to understand the nature of the emerging threat posed by car-hacking," they wrote.

"Until we can identify all vulnerable systems and vehicles, car-hacking will continue to present a critical threat to the safety of drivers, passengers, and road users," the letter stated. "The NHTSA must rapidly determine whether other vehicle models are affected by this particular vulnerability, and how remedial actions can be deployed by manufacturers and regulators to secure all vehicles on our roads."

Earlier this month, Markey and Blumenthal filed legislation that would require the federal government to establish standards to ensure that automakers secure a driver against vehicle cyber attacks.

Among other things, the Security and Privacy in Your Car (SPY Car) Act calls for vehicles to be equipped with technology that can detect, report and stop hacking attempts in real time.

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