Over the past three weeks, my family and I spent more than 22 hours driving more than 1,400 miles for our vacation. The trip involved enduring construction traffic, heavy rainstorms and unbelievably frightening, dense and fast traffic along interstates merely two lanes wide.
We made it through safely, partly because I pulled over to let my husband drive through the rain (I hate driving in rain) and partly because he has learned to endure my uncontrollable need to provide commentary about his driving skills from the passenger seat — even though his driving record is better than mine. It defies logic that the worse driver is the more vocal critic but, as I said, it's out of my control.
We are not the only family racking up miles. We are a nation of drivers, traveling more than 3 trillion miles in the past year. There are 250 million cars and trucks on the road, and roughly 15 million new cars and trucks are being purchased every year. We travel by auto predominantly, and we assume, when we get behind the wheel, that our car will obey our every command.
Not so fast. Last Tuesday, I read an article in Wired that raises questions about that belief. Written by Andy Greenberg, "Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway — With Me in It" fueled my imagination and filled me with dread. Greenberg reported on a test drive he took while hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek took over his car.
"As the two hackers remotely toyed with the air-conditioning, radio, and windshield wipers, I mentally congratulated myself on my courage under pressure. That's when they cut the transmission," wrote Greenberg. "Immediately my accelerator stopped working. As I frantically pressed the pedal and watched the RPMs climb, the Jeep lost half its speed, then slowed to a crawl. This occurred just as I reached a long overpass, with no shoulder to offer an escape ... The semi loomed in the mirror, bearing down on my immobilized Jeep. ...After narrowly averting death by semi-trailer, I managed to roll the lame Jeep down an exit ramp, re-engaged the transmission by turning the ignition off and on, and found an empty lot where I could safely continue the experiment."
Losing the ability to control a vehicle due to wireless hackers seems like something that might happen in a spy movie or a Brad Thor thriller, but now it is happening in real life.
"Miller and Valasek's full arsenal includes functions that at lower speeds fully kill the engine, abruptly engage the brakes, or disable them all together," noted Greenberg. "Their hack enables surveillance too: They can track a targeted Jeep's GPS coordinates, measure its speed, and even drop pins on a map to trace its route."
While at first Miller and Valasek thought that the ability to hack into the car might be constrained to local or direct wireless connection, it proved to be possible to hack over the Internet. Valasek told Greenberg, "I freaked out ... I was frightened ... that's a vehicle on a highway in the middle of the country. Car hacking got real, right then."
Greenberg's article coincides with the introduction of new legislation to regulate such threats. On Tuesday, Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced legislation "that would direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ... and the Federal Trade Commission ... to establish federal standards to secure our cars and protect drivers' privacy," according to a press release from Sen. Markey's office.
It will be interesting to see if the legislation advances or gets stalled. Regardless, cyber expert Josh Corman, the cofounder of I Am the Cavalry, a group focused on cyber security, has been traveling to auto-industry meetings and pushing the industry to address security concerns directly rather than waiting for legislation and regulation.
There is a natural tension between convenience — such as the ability to have your car doors unlocked if you lock your keys in you car — and privacy. For those of us conditioned to check the "Agree" boxes on privacy notices, there is no visibility into what real privacy we have. In this complex technical environment in which we live, those who expose weaknesses are providing a real service to our privacy and safety.
Next time you get into your car, if it's connected to the Internet, realize that it might also be possible for hackers to take total control of your vehicle.