Tire Sensors Can Be Easily Hacked

Aug. 12, 2010
Wireless devices that measure tire pressure could be hacked to reveal driver whereabouts, according to study.

Wireless sensor technologies found in tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) in new cars are vulnerable to hackers, who can intercept or even do high-tech forgery known as spoofing, according to a new study conducted by Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina.

Though the study concedes that the potential for danger is very small, it also points to the inherent vulnerability in secure software development for new automobiles, said Wenyuan Xu, a computer science assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, who is presenting the teams findings at the Usenix Security Symposium this week in Washington D.C.

The researchers conducted testing on newly developed systems that monitor air pressure of each tire on an automobile. Since 2008, the U.S. has stipulated that these systems are required for new cars. Over the next two years, the European Union will require similar monitoring systems on their new fleets.

But as the researchers at Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina allude to, even advanced TPMS systems arent foolproof, especially when the software is vulnerable to outside hacking.

TPMS systems consist of battery-powered radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on each tire, which can respond with the air pressure readings of the tire when wirelessly monitored by an electronic control unit (ECU). But researchers found that each sensor has a unique 32-bit ID and that communication between the tag and the control unit was unencrypted, leaving it open to interception by third parties from 45 yards away.

If the sensor IDs were captured at roadside tracking points and stored in databases, third parties could infer or prove that the driver has visited potentially sensitive locations such as medical clinics, political meetings, or nightclubs, the researchers wrote in their paper.

The messages could also be forged, according to the research. A hacker could overwhelm the control unit with low pressure readings that would repeatedly set off the warning light, causing the driver to lose confidence in the sensor readings.

We have observed that it was possible to convince the TPMS control unit to display readings that were clearly impossible, the researchers wrote, noting that they were able to confuse the control unit beyond repair.

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