Protecting automotive systems against unauthorized access and tampering

December 18, 2015 // By Ralf Eckhardt, Texas Instruments
Today’s automobiles are equipped with an increasing number of functions for driver assistance, navigation and communication. While these systems support drivers in complex traffic situations, they also open the door for tampering attempts by hackers. Older vehicles were ‘closed’ systems whose on-board electronic systems could only be accessed using the OBD plug (on-board diagnosis). In contrast, modern automobiles provide a multitude of interfaces that can be used to compromise the system.

The interfaces of digital storage media (CD, USB, MMC) provide a means to tamper with unprotected systems or to steal sensitive or licensed data. With hardware-based interfaces, attackers need to access the car’s interior. In contrast to this, wireless interfaces including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, LTE, UMTS and internet provide many more opportunities for attackers who don’t even need get into the vehicle anymore. Theoretically, any internet access anywhere in the world can be used to attack a vehicle with an internet connection. Today, the infotainment system is the primary gateway used to attack a car. With their integrated telephone functions and smartphone connections, these systems can be used by attackers to access a lot of sensitive information including phone numbers, addresses and additional private data. Furthermore, on-board networks including CAN, FlexRay or Ethernet can be used as a means to access all the connected control units of a vehicle.

How strong is the motivation for hackers to access the on-board network of a vehicle to manipulate or even steal data?

Recent examples of hacked vehicles have demonstrated that it is relatively easy to compromise today’s conventional vehicles via the CAN bus. The risk is obvious even though this may entail a lot of effort and may not be very useful for hackers. In contrast, it is much more profitable to steal private data and licensing information from software, media data and navigation maps. As an additional aspect, licensed software should only be activated on a single control unit. Without tamper protection, the software could also be installed and used on a different infotainment system.

It is also important to link expensive pieces of equipment to a specific vehicle because infotainment units are frequently stolen from vehicles to be sold as replacement parts in other countries. It must be ensured that stolen components cannot be used in different vehicles.

In addition, odometer data is often manipulated in order to sell used cars for a higher price. The system must therefore include mechanisms preventing straightforward tampering.

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