IoT Security and Protecting Connected Cars

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Ever imagined on owning a car that can drive by itself; that not just determines the fastest route for you through its navigation system, but also finds the most fuel efficient one; that automatically registers for its servicing and renews its insurance; that is smart enough to prevent accidents by assessing driver’s vital functions and alerting the travelers of the potential problems; that drives on its own through traffic jams and highways. Yes, it is no more just a dream car. This disruption is already in progress through the integration of Internet of Things.

We call these cars as ‘Connected Cars’. A connected car is a car that is equipped with Internet access (wireless and LAN) that can be shared with other devices both inside as well as outside the vehicle. These cars are often outfitted with special technologies that tap into the internet or wireless LAN and provide additional benefits to the driver. Examples include, automatic notification of crashes, notification of speeding and safety alerts.

Unfortunately, all these sub-systems are not protected from any kind of hacking. Hence, it is a piece of cake for any hacker who has the ingenuity and talent to hack into these cars and dilute the system. For example, a hacker can apply brakes through wireless technologies when the car is moving, without the knowledge of the driver. It is not very hard to imagine the tremendous damage this act will cause when a car is in motion and suddenly stops without the knowledge of the driver knowing.

Therefore, it is imperative to prevent these types of attacks on cars and in today’s increasingly connected world of IoT, this is an immediate need of the hour.

How do we secure these connected cars?

All modern cars have computer networks to control its functions. Those networks control the engine, control the brakes, to control the ABS etc. Those networks are also used to control the entertainment systems. Those networks have a common protocol underneath the wires that carry the messages. That protocol is CAN (Controller Area Network).

The CAN network is the central part of all the communication activities taking place in a car. The CAN network carry messages to and from various nodes inside the car. These nodes might be for different functions. One might be controlling the engine and usually called Power Train Controller and another might be controlling the windows. These nodes are generically names as Electronic Control Units (ECU).

The CAN network, curiously do not have any addresses for those nodes. The nodes are address less and nameless entities on the CAN network. The source of all the insecurity in the CAN bus is related to this one decision made by the committee which created CAN. However, the CAN messages emanating from the nodes have addresses. Hence, any nodes which is interested in any message will filter the messages and will get the relevant message based only on the address of the message. As a consequence, the node which receives the message will never know from where the message has originated.

There are many CAN networks inside a car and these networks are joined in a certain way and a gateway is designed to access these CAN bus. This gateway is called OBD interface. Also, the CAN buses are tied together in the instrumentation cluster as well. Hence, is somebody accesses the CAN network through Bluetooth in the instrumentation cluster, they can send any malicious commands to the network to cause the car to stop, accelerate etc., without the knowledge of the driver.

What is the solution?

One possible solution is have a master slave relationship in the CAN network, which will be in contrast to what the CAN bus is all about. The CAN bus is a master-master network and need huge change in the mental set up of the designers to change the CAN network as a master-slave setup. This will enable the CAN network to work with encryption and the keys can be created and exchanged through the master-slave architecture. This will prevent any attacks from outside the CAN bus. Another possible solution is to move away from CAN network and utilize some other network with encryption inbuilt. One example, which a famous car company is experimenting with is Ethernet technology. By all means, CAN network is a very resilient network and may not the replaced, but these problems should be addressed to control the menace of hacking of the cars.

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