November 17, 2019

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Heavy Metal Murder Machines and the People Who Love Them

What is the heaviest computer you own?  Chances are, you are driving it.

And with all of the hacking news flying past us day after day, our imaginations have not even begun to grasp what could happen if a hostile person decided to hack our automotive computers – individually or en masse. What better way to attack the American way of life but disable and crash armies of cars, stranding them on the road, killing tens of thousands, shutting down functionality of every city? Set every Ford F-150 to accelerated to 80 miles an hour at the same time on the same day and don’t stick around to clean up the mess.

We learned the cyberwarfare could turn corporal with the US/Israeli STUXNET bug forcing Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to overwork and physically break themselves (along with a few stray Indian centrifuges caught in the crossfire). This seems like a classic solution for terror attacks – slip malicious code into machines that will actually kill people. Imagine if the World Trade Center attack was carried out from a distance by simply taking over the airplanes’ computer operations and programing them to fly into public buildings.  Spectacular mission achieved and no terrorist would be at risk.

This would be easy to do with automobiles. For example, buy a recent year used car on credit at most U.S. lots and the car comes with a remote operation tool that allows the lender to shut off the car, to keep it from starting up, and to home in on its location so the car can either be “bricked” or grabbed by agents of the lender due to non-payment. We know that a luxury car includes more than 100 million lines of code, where a Boeing 787 Dreamliner contains merely 6.5 million lines of code and a U.S. Airforce F-22 Raptor Jet holds only 1.7 million lines of code.  Such complexity leads to further vulnerability.

The diaphanous separation between the real and electronic worlds is thinning every day, and not enough people are concentrating on the problem of keeping enormous, powerful machines from being hijacked from afar. We are a society that loves its freedom machines, but that love may lead to our downfall.

An organization called Consumer Watchdog has issued a report subtly titled KILL SWITCH: WHY CONNECTED CARS CAN BE KILLING MACHINES AND HOW TO TURN THEM OFF, which urges auto manufacturers to install physical kill switches in cars and trucks that would allow the vehicles to be disconnected from the internet. The switch would cost about fifty cents and could prevent an apocalyptic loss of control for nearly every vehicle on the road at the same time. (The IoT definition of a bad day)

“Experts agree that connecting safety-critical components to the internet through a complex information and entertainment device is a security flaw. This design allows hackers to control a vehicle’s operations and take it over from across the internet. . . . By 2022, no less than two-thirds of new cars on American roads will have online connections to the cars’ safety-critical system, putting them at risk of deadly hacks.”

And if that isn’t frightening enough, the report continued,

“Millions of cars on the internet running the same software means a single exploit can affect millions of vehicles simultaneously. A hacker with only modest resources could launch a massive attack against our automotive infrastructure, potentially causing thousands of fatalities and disrupting our most critical form of transportation,”

If the government dictates seat belts and auto emissions standards, why on earth wouldn’t the Transportation Department require a certain level of security of connectivity and software invulnerability from the auto industry.  We send millions of multi-ton killing machines capable of blinding speeds out on our roads every day, and there seems to be no standard for securing the hackability of these machines.  Why not?

And why not require the 50 cent kill switch that can isolate each vehicle from the internet?

50 years ago, when Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed demonstrated the need for government regulation of the auto industry so that car companies’ raw greed would not override customer safety concerns.  Soon after, Lee Iacocca led a Ford design team that calculated it was worth the horrific flaming deaths of 180 Ford customers each year in 2,100 vehicle explosions due to flawed gas tank design that was eventually fixed with a tool costing less than one dollar  per car.

Granted that safety is a much more important issue for auto manufacturers now than in the 1970s, but if so, why have we not seen industry teams meeting to devise safety standards in auto electronics the same way standards have been accepted in auto mechanics? If the industry won’t take this standard-setting task seriously, then the government should force them to do so.

And the government should be providing help in this space anyway. Vehicle manufacturers have only a commercially reasonable amount of money to spend addressing this electronic safety problem.  The Russian and Iranian governments have a commercially unreasonable amount of money to spend attacking us. Who makes up the difference in this crital infrastructure space? Recognizing our current state of cyber warfare – hostile government sponsored hackers are already attacking our banking and power systems on a regular basis, not to mention attempting to manipulate our electorate – our government should be rushing in to bolster electronic and software security for the automotive and trucking sectors. Why doesn’t the TSB regulate the area and provide professional assistance to build better protections based on military grade standards?

Nothing in our daily lives is more dangerous than our vehicles out of control. Nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day. An additional 20-50 million per year are injured or disabled. A terrorist or hostile government attack on the electronic infrastructure controlling our cars would easily multiply this number as well as shutting down the US roads, economy and health care system for all practical purposes.

We are not addressing the issue now with nearly the seriousness that it demands.

How many true car–mageddons will need to occur before we all take electric security seriously?

Copyright © 2019 Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP All Rights Reserved.

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About this Author

Theodore Claypoole, Intellectual Property Attorney, Womble Carlyle, private sector lawyer, data breach legal counsel, software development law
Senior Partner

As a Partner of the Firm’s Intellectual Property Practice Group, Ted leads the firm’s IP Transaction Team, as well as data breach incident response teams in the public and private sectors. Ted addressed information security risk management, and cross-border data transfer issue, including those involving the European Union and the Data Protection Safe Harbor. He also negotiates and prepares business process outsourcing, distribution, branding, software development, hosted application and electronic commerce agreements for all types of companies.

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