GM's OnStar, Ford Sync, MP3, Bluetooth Possible Attack Vectors for Cars

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 MP3 files.

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 firmware.

"It's hard to think of something more innocuous than song," Savage said.

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 example.

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 uploading malware.

Even so, automakers appear to be taking the security issues they've raised very seriously, said Savage and Kohno.