In 2010, U.S. carmakers introduced a feature to enable 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 subsystems and secure critical functions.
Modern automobile electronics
The figure below shows a selection of electronic systems within the modern automobile.
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