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Tesla Hack Takeaways: 3 Things Auto Suppliers, OEMs Need to Know

A cybersecurity expert offers manufacturing best practices to keep connected cars secure.

By 2020, Statista predicts that worldwide, connected cars will make up 98% of the new car market. And with this innovation comes increased vulnerabilities.

In 2016, a team from security research firm Keen Labs successfully demonstrated how to hack Tesla’s Model-S. They tricked drivers into accessing a fake website through a malicious Wifi hotspot, which then downloaded the researchers’ software. This software enabled them to gain control of the car’s features—including the braking system.

Tesla responded by patching the flaw—but just one year later, Keen regained remote access the same way.

While these researchers were not hacking the vehicles for nefarious purposes, it’s easy to see how automotive hacking has become the next big cybersecurity risk. The problem isn’t specific to Tesla, either. A moving Jeep was hacked by researchers in 2015, causing Chrysler to recall 1.4 million vehicles that were also at risk. And in 2016, researchers from the University of Michigan were able to hack a semi and a school bus.

While connected cars provide an opportunity for manufacturers and tech companies to create unique driving experiences and channel new growth, the recent hacks exposed the privacy and safety risks that have developed alongside this innovation.

In order to prevent hacks of this kind from happening in the future, there are several lessons automotive suppliers and OEMs can learn from Tesla’s initial oversight.

Install code signing. This method uses coding to encrypt and decrypt messages. It verifies the integrity of over-the-air firmware updates for Electronic Control Unit (ECU) firmware. Responsible for many aspects of how a car operates, ECUs receive sensor data and send commands to other components connected to mechanical parts. If an attacker can alter ECU firmware, they can effectively change the operation of the car. ECU firmware code signing protection was not present in the Tesla Model S at the time of the 2016 research, but they installed it after the hack became known.

Always have the proper authentication measures in place. Creating unique identities for all critical electronic components make it possible for devices to know and validate the source and destination of the commands they respond to. Therefore, a command originating from the infotainment system would not be able to control driving functions such as braking or steering. When improper authentication measures are in place, it makes it simple for a hacker to gain access to a critical component through a weaker unit.

Customize authorization based on operating context for electrical components sending or responding to commands. This would prevent technology from being activated in unsafe conditions. For example, a parallel park assist should not be authorized to send commands when the car is driving at high speeds.

Manufacturers should take note of connected car vulnerabilities, in order to prevent hackers from compromising the security and privacy of their passengers as the technology becomes more mainstream.

Josh Jabs is vice president, office of the CTO, and general manager, IoT Solutions, at Entrust Datacard, a cybersecurity company.

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