Can modern cars be hacked like computers? We look at the real risks

5 minutes

Head out to buy a car today and you’ll find many are hooked up to on-board computer systems that improve performance and link them to the ‘internet of things’.

But could computerisation open cars up to hackers? We quiz the experts to find out.

  • What makes a car vulnerable to hacking?
  • How you can protect your car
  • Cyber security tips from the techsperts

Could your car be compromised by hackers?

According to Gartner, an information technology research company, there'll be a quarter of a billion connected cars on the road by 2020, and the car of the future will be a high-tech machine.

In 2013, two US hackers demonstrated that with the right tools, computerised cars could be hacked into remotely. This raised concerns about how safe computerised cars are for consumers. 

In reality, only the most sophisticated vehicles feature the type of on-board computers that could present an opportunity for cyber criminals. 

'The history of technology has always involved the large manufacturers rushing out products, only for programmers to quickly expose flaws,' says Sian John, chief security strategist for EMEA at Symantec.

'Autonomous functionality, internet connectivity and other online services in a vehicle are sexy and extremely easy to sell to the public, so naturally manufacturers want to get these to market quickly.'

'The problem is, car manufacturers have plenty of experience in safety but very little in cyber security, so we have seen breaches highlighted but usually resolved quickly,' she says.

How does vehicle hacking work?

US hacking experts Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek exposed flaws in automotive cyber security as far back as 2013. They managed to disable the brakes, honk the horn and commandeer the steering wheel of a vehicle by plugging a laptop into the Onboard Diagnostics (OBD) port and running software through the car's systems. 

It was a turning point for the industry, but many felt the chances of a cyber criminal physically gaining access to a car and plugging in a laptop were slim. But the dynamic duo stepped up their game last year when they took control of a Jeep Cherokee using nothing more than a laptop and a mobile connection.

'Modern cars should be considered as highly sophisticated mobile computers,' says Richard Kirk, senior vice president at cyber security firm AlienVault. 

'If the hack is performed by breaking into a car owner's app or the vehicle's online systems, the hacker just needs to be connected to the internet. This is very similar to how computer hacking occurs.'

Could my car be compromised?

If your car has a computer, the chances of someone hacking into your vehicle and seizing control while you are in it are extremely slim – but it can't hurt to be armed with the facts. 

Typically, only the newest cars that can connect wirelessly to other devices – for example, a car with an infotainment system that connects to your smartphone, or one with a built-in SIM card – are at risk of a cyber attack. 

New tech that allows owners to unlock vehicles with a smartphone could potentially let thieves drive away with your car, having logged in with their own devices using a stolen password.

Any online software or app requiring you to input personal data should be treated with caution, too – and that often includes software found on many modern vehicles' infotainment systems. 

'Car owners should apply the same rules that they follow – or should be following – for their computers and smartphones,' says Richard Kirk. 

'Use hard-to-guess passwords if they're required, use different passwords for different accounts, do not share passwords and do not give anyone access to your car app or portal account.'

Now you've just got to figure out how to remember them all!

How can I make sure I keep control?

Get to know your vehicle and understand what online services or digital access points it has. Anything with a built-in SIM card or an infotainment system tethered to your smartphone is transmitting data, so just double check it's secure.

You also need to ask the tough questions when buying a new car: what digital security measures have been put in place? What is being done to combat future issues? It's always best to be prepared – even though car hacking incidents are still extremely rare.

What does the future hold?

Fortunately, these high-profile hacks and security breaches have made the automotive industry take notice. 

'The auto industry needs to continue evaluating the security implications of new features and appropriately balance security with convenience,' saysDavid Gibson, vice president of strategy and development at data security company Varonis.

But being a clued-up customer is also important as cars become more technologically advanced, so it's a good idea to make sure you're covered in case of any hi-tech mishaps.