Autonomous Vehicle Security Needs From A Hacker’s Perspective

With connected cars becoming more common, the industry has more standards and options when it comes to autonomous vehicle security. 

Adam Laurie, known in hacker circles as Major Malfunction, leads X-Force Red’s automotive testing practice. He has seen firsthand how easy it can be to compromise an autonomous vehicle if strong security processes and controls are not in place. He recently found an opening in the keyless entry device of his own vehicle, then leveraged it to unlock every vehicle of the same model in a parking lot. The project was for research purposes as opposed to a real attack, but it did show how easy it could be for an attacker to purchase a vehicle, reverse engineer it to find flaws and then exploit those flaws to compromise every other vehicle of that same model.

Laurie and IBM’s Global Solution Leader for Connected Vehicle Security, Giuseppe Serio, recently presented a webinar about the regulation. They discussed the nuts and bolts of the mandate, the timeline for compliance and what automakers should be doing now to begin the compliance process. 

Watch the recording

Industry Warned About Autonomous Vehicle Security 

If you haven’t already taken a ride inside an autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicle, chances are you will in the near future. The autonomous vehicle market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 68.94% from 2025 to 2030. This growth has many positives, including more lives saved.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94% of serious crashes are due to human error. As the NHTSA also points out, autonomous vehicles can cut down on traffic congestion and carbon dioxide emissions.

With the benefits comes one downside — autonomous vehicle security concerns. As with most things that connect to the internet, risks can arise, and the components of an autonomous vehicle may have inherent openings. Even if the vehicle was designed securely, new problems may surface once it is connected.

In 2019, the FBI issued a warning about autonomous vehicle cybersecurity, with “ransomware infections, data breaches leading to the exfiltration of personally identifiable information and unauthorized access to enterprise networks” likely in the future. 

Dude, Where’s My (Autonomous) Car?

One of the main challenges with securing autonomous vehicles is protecting its linked applications in jailbroken phones or laptops, Laurie says. If an attacker were to jailbreak their own phone, they could see the application code while it was running, which includes how it talks to the backend server. They could then retrieve the application’s hidden data, such as credentials, and take full control of the code, vehicle and connected infrastructure.

The vehicle itself can also be a prime target for attackers. Tools to launch refined attacks against embedded hardware and controller area network (CAN bus) systems are not difficult to find. Attackers could simply purchase or rent a vehicle, find its common flaws such as a backdoor in a module or network, and compromise every other vehicle in the same fleet.

Who is Responsible for Autonomous Vehicle Security? 

First-party automakers are not the only ones who should be prioritizing digital safety. Third-party suppliers can also be at risk of a compromise. Attackers could find and exploit a vulnerability in a manufacturer’s network. Even a flaw unrelated to the vehicle operations unit could allow them to pivot onto a supplier’s network, Laurie says.

That is why it is critical that the entire autonomous vehicle infrastructure — every server, network, device, application, vehicle and component  — must be protected. Just one poorly configured server on the manufacturer’s or supplier’s end can lead to an attacker breaking into the server, pivoting onto the backend network and gaining control of the connected application and therefore the vehicle. 

New Mandate Aims To Protect Drivers and Vehicles

A new United Nations regulation, UNECE WP29, should help automotive manufacturers and suppliers build security controls and processes into the autonomous vehicle lifecycle. It lists common threats, risks and attack methods. It also covers threat reduction processes and controls that automakers in countries covered by the U.N. mandate must implement to protect against the highlighted attacks. These entities must also attest that their third-party suppliers are adhering to the mandate.

Another beneficial aspect is that compliance is required for all stages of the vehicle’s life — development, production and post-production. Automakers have to renew their certificate of compliance every three years. Even if they stop producing autonomous vehicles, if those vehicles are still on the market, they must comply. If they don’t, they will not be allowed to sell vehicles.

The regulation states certain countries in the European Union and the Asia-Pacific region must comply. However, any entity which sells vehicles to those regions must also comply.

According to Laurie, the mandate does a good job addressing the main threats and risks. If automakers test each threat listed, they should vastly reduce their risk of a compromise. Addressing these potential problems through all stages of manufacturing helps create a baseline of autonomous vehicle cybersecurity.

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