Researchers remotely hacked into a 2009 sedan and completely took over the car's control systems via Bluetooth, MP3 files and cellular auto service networks such as General Motors OnStar and Ford Sync.
University of California
researchers demonstrated last year that computer systems embedded in
automobiles can be hacked to compromise safety features. This year, the same
researchers found ways to remotely hack into these systems using Bluetooth and
Researchers at the University of California,
San Diego and the University
of Washington have been researching
security holes in electronic vehicle controls as automakers develop
increasingly complicated in-car computers and Internet-connected entertainment
systems. They presented their research to the National Academy of Sciences Committee
on Electronic Vehicle Controls and Unintended Acceleration
Most new cars have some kind of a computer system that controls basic
functions, such as brakes and engine performance, as well as advanced features
such as Bluetooth wireless technology and built-in connectors for cell phones,
MP3 players and other devices. All new American-made cars are federally
mandated to have a Controller Area Network system for diagnostics, and several
automakers have rolled out cellular technology such as General Motors' OnStar
and Ford's Sync services.
All of these can be exploited by remote attackers, the researchers said.
The research team, led by Stefan Savage, a professor of computer science at the
University of California,
San Diego, and Tadayoshi Kohno, an
assistant professor of computer science at University
of Washington, were able to control
the car's brakes, locks and computerized dashboard display by accessing the
on-board computer using the Bluetooth wireless technology and OnStar and Sync's
cellular networks. The team also had access to GPS
data and vehicle identification numbers.
Savage and Kohno had previously demonstrated they could take control of a
car's control system as long as they had physical access to the vehicle's
on-board diagnostic system. The new research showed how potential remote
attacks could take complete control of all of the car's internal systems.
The research team didn't identify the make or model of the car they hacked,
but said it was a 2009 sedan equipped with fewer computer systems than most
high-end cars currently available on the market.
The researchers broke through the cellular network's authentication system
to upload an audio file containing malware. They were also able to play an MP3
file containing some malicious code over the car's stereo to alter the
"It's hard to think of something more innocuous than song," Savage
The team found a vulnerability in the way Bluetooth was implemented that
allowed them to execute malicious code by using an app installed on a
smartphone that had been "paired" with the car's Bluetooth system.
"We were surprised to find that the attack surface was so broad,"
Kohno said, listing the number of ways the researchers were able to compromise
the vehicle systems.
Attackers could search for desired models of cars, identify their locations
using GPS tracking, and unlock them without
laying a hand on the car, the researchers said. They could also sabotage a car
by disabling its brakes, for example.
Researchers found no evidence that cyber-criminals were using these tactics
to attack cars. "This took 10 researchers two years to accomplish,"
said Savage. "It's not something that one guy is going to do in his
garage," he said.
One factor working against would-be car hackers is the fact that there are
significant differences among car systems. An attack might work on an auto make
and model one year and then fail against the same model the next year, for
The remote hack was not easy to execute, and there is a high technical
barrier for attackers to overcome, researchers noted. It's still easier to just
do it the old-fashioned way, by plugging directly into the car's systems and
Even so, automakers appear to be taking the security issues they've raised
very seriously, said Savage and Kohno.