The thief spends a moment, nervously looking around before entering the Jeep Wrangler parked in the owner’s Houston, Texas driveway. Once behind the wheel, he opens a laptop computer and spends a couple minutes tapping on the keyboard. Suddenly, the engine starts up, he shifts into gear and drives off.
That event, caught on video by a home security system, was one of several vehicle thefts reported recently that suggest a potential change in the way car thieves are doing their work, hacking into vehicles’ computer control systems, rather than hotwiring the cars.
“We think it is becoming the new way of stealing cars,” said Roger Morris, a vice president at the National Insurance Crime Bureau, told the Wall Street Journal. “The public, law enforcement and the manufacturers need to be aware.”
Hacking, on a broader scale, has become an issue of serious concern among auto industry insiders and regulators alike, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind telling automakers earlier this year that it should become one of their highest priorities.
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That point was underscored last month when British tech firm Pen Test Partners was able to use a built-in diagnostics port to gain access to the computer control system on a plug-in hybrid version of the Japanese SUV. A year earlier, another security firm showed it possible to hack into a Jeep, demonstrating the risk by remotely driving the vehicle into a ditch. That forced Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to order a recall of 1.4 million vehicles to patch a software vulnerability in its vehicles.
BMW and subsidiaries Mini and Rolls-Royce also have been forced to recall vehicles due to a potential hacker vulnerability. And Nissan shut down a smartphone app for its Leaf electric vehicle because of its own potential risks.
The fear is that hackers could might try taking control of, or shutting down, a vehicle while driving. But that’s just one concern, according to Roger Ordman, a marketing manager with Harman International, the multinational electronics firm that recently acquired TowerSec, an Israeli firm considered a leader in vehicle electronic security.
“A hacker might not be about crashing your car into a wall but wanting to know where you are and accessing personal information,” Ordman told TheDetroitBureau.com. Add stealing cars to that list.
Today’s vehicles typically contain more electronics than the typical home or office and plenty of ways to access them. Much of the focus has been on the security gaps that could be opening up through wireless communications systems — anything from the 4G LTE hotspots many automakers are adding to the remote tire pressure monitoring systems now required by law.
In the case of the Houston theft and several others in the city, another possible vulnerability could be the OBD II onboard vehicle monitoring interface.
“We don’t know what he is exactly doing with the laptop,” Houston Officer James Woods, who has spent 23 years in the Houston Police Department’s auto antitheft unit, told the Journal. “but my guess is he is tapping into the car’s computer and marrying it with a key he may already have with him so he can start the car.”
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A Fiat Chrysler official confirmed concerns that the thieves may have gotten hold of a system used by dealers to pair the vehicles with a new key, one they already had in hand. That could be as simple as access to a dealer website where knowing a vehicle’s VIN, or unique identification number, can provide the necessary codes to marry car and key.
An industry summit is expected to address the broader issue of mobile cybersecurity later this month, attendees ranging from General Motors CEO Mary Barra to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
While hacking will be a central issue, the reports from Houston and other parts of the country could make the threat of high-tech theft one of the gathering’s hot topics of conversation.
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