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Security threats in next-gen car electronics

Posted: 21 Feb 2012     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded systems  electronic control units  LIN  MOST 

In 2010, vehicle manufacturers in the United States launched a feature that enables car owners to manipulate the locks and start the engine from anywhere on the planet using a smartphone. This connectivity piggybacks on the car�s remote telematics system, which has become standard in many models.

Just prior to this smartphone introduction, a team of university researchers published a study demonstrating how such a car's critical systems—brakes, engine throttling, etc.—could be maliciously tampered with by exploiting vulnerabilities in the car's embedded systems (see reference).

The researchers learned how to bridge from the low security network to the critical systems using "fuzzing" techniques. Brakes and engine were disabled while the car was in motion, demonstrating that the attacks could indeed place passengers in peril.

Connecting the automobile to wide-area networks is exactly the trigger that brings in the threat of sophisticated attackers. A single flaw may allow a remote attacker to perpetrate damage to an entire fleet of vehicles.

What the researchers do not talk about is what we can do about embedded automotive security today. As we'll discuss later, practical changes must be made to better isolate the network sub-systems and secure critical functions.

Modern automobile electronics

Figure 1 shows a selection of electronic systems within the modern automobile.

Figure 1: Electronic systems in automotives.

High-end luxury cars contain as many as two hundred microprocessors in these systems across one hundred components or electronic control units (ECUs). Multiple networks of varying type, including Controller Area Network (CAN), FlexRay, Local Interconnect Network (LIN), and Media Oriented Systems Transport (MOST), connect these ECUs, The car OEM integrates ECU components and software from dozens of Tier-1 and Tier-2 suppliers. But the OEM does not rigorously control their suppliers' development processes.

It should come as no surprise that this situation has become untenable. OEMs are suffering from the "longest pole" syndrome: A single ECU, delivered with serious reliability problems, may be all that is needed to cause shipping delays or failures that harm reputation.

Security threats
Security threats to vehicles can be classified in three domains: Local-physical, remote, and internal-electronic. Combinations of these will often be required to inflict damage.

Local-physical threats: An example of local-physical threat would be someone physically tapping into the drivetrain's CAN network and disrupting communications. Such an invasive attack can quite easily disable critical car functions. However, a local attacker, such as a disgruntled mechanic, can harm only one car and is therefore unlikely to get the attention of security teams. Furthermore, a car's complex electronic system is simply impractical to protect from physical attack. So we generally punt on this class of threats.

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