Connected cars and cybercrime: A primer | #cybercrime | #infosec


Original equipment suppliers (OEMs) and their suppliers who are weighing how to invest their budgets might be inclined to slow pedal investment in addressing cyberthreats. To date, the attacks that they have encountered have remained relatively unsophisticated and not especially harmful.

Analysis of chatter in criminal underground message exchanges, however, reveals that the pieces exist for multi-layered, widespread attacks in the coming years. And given that the automotive industry’s customary development cycles are long, waiting for the more sophisticated cyberattacks on connected cars to appear is not a practical option.

What should the world’s automotive OEMs and suppliers do now to prepare for the inevitable transition from today’s manual, car-modding hacks to tomorrow’s user impersonation, account thefts and other possible attacks?

How connectivity is changing car crime

As our vehicles become more connected to the outside world, the attack surface available to cybercriminals is rapidly increasing, and new “smart” features on the current generation of vehicles worldwide open the door for new threats.

Our new “smartphones on wheels”—always connected to the internet, utilizing many apps and services, collecting tremendous amounts of data from multiple sensors, receiving over-the-air software updates, etc.—stand to be attacked in similar ways to how our computers and handheld devices already are today.

Automotive companies need to think now about those potential future threats. A car that an OEM is planning today will likely reach the market in three to five years. It will need to be already secured against the cyberthreat landscape that might be in existence by then. If the car hits the market without the required cybersecurity capabilities, the job of securing it will become significantly more difficult.

The likelihood of substantially more frequent, devious, and harmful attacks is portended by the complex attacks on connected cars that we have seen devised by industry researchers. Fortunately, the attacks to this point largely have been limited to these theoretical exercises in the automotive industry. Car modding – e.g., unlocking a vehicle’s features or manipulating mileage – is as far as real-world implementation has gotten.

Connectivity limits some of the typical options that are available to criminals specializing in car crime. The trackability of contemporary vehicles makes reselling stolen cars significantly more challenging, and even if a criminal can manage to take a vehicle offline, the associated loss of features renders the car less valuable to potential buyers.

Still, as connectivity across and beyond vehicles grows more pervasive and complicated, so will the threat. How are attacks on tomorrow’s connected cars likely to evolve?

Emerging fronts for next-generation attacks

Because the online features of connected cars are managed via user accounts, attackers may seek access to those accounts to attain control over the vehicle. Takeover of these car-user accounts looms as the emerging front for attack for would-be car cybercriminals and even criminal organizations, creating ripe possibilities for user impersonation and the buying and selling of the accounts.

Stealing online accounts and selling them to rogue collaborators who can act on that knowledge tee up a range of future possible attacks for tomorrow’s automotive cybercriminals:

  • Selling car user accounts
  • Impersonating users via phishing, keyloggers or other malware
  • Remote unlocking, starting and controlling connected cars
  • Opening cars and looting for valuables or committing other one-off crimes
  • Stealing cars and selling for parts
  • Locating cars to pinpoint owners’ residential addresses and to identify when owners are not home

The crime triangle takes shape

Connected car cybercrime is still in its infancy, but criminal organizations in some nations are beginning to recognize the opportunity to exploit vehicle connectivity. Surveying today’s underground message forums quickly reveals that the pieces could quickly fall into place for more sophisticated automotive cyberattacks in the years ahead. Discussions on underground crime forums around data that could be leaked and needed/available software tools to enable attacks are already intensifying.

A post from a publicly searchable auto-modders forum about a vehicle’s multi-displacement system (MDS) for adjusting engine performance, is symbolic of the current activity and possibilities.

Another, in which a user on a criminal underground forum offers a data dump from car manufacturer, points to the possible threats that likely are coming to the industry.

Though they still seem to be limited to accessing regular stolen data, compromises and network accesses are for sale in the underground. The crime triangle (as defined by crime analysts) for sophisticated automotive cyberattacks is solidifying:

  • Target — The connected cars that serious criminals will seek to exploit in the years ahead are becoming more and more prevalent in the global marketplace.
  • Desire — Criminal organizations will find ample market incentive to monetize stolen car accounts.
  • Opportunity — Hackers are steeped in inventive methods to hijack people’s accounts via phishing, infostealing, keylogging, etc.

Penetrating and exploiting connected cars

The ways for seizing access to the data of users of connected cars are numerous: introducing malicious in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) apps, exploiting unsecure IVI apps and network connections, taking advantage of unsecure browsers to steal private data, and more.

Also, there’s a risk of exploitation of personally identifiable information (PII) and vehicle telemetric data (on a car’s condition, for example) stored in smart cockpits, to inform extremely personalized and convincing phishing emails.

Here’s one method by which it could happen:

  • An attacker identifies vulnerabilities that can be exploited in a browser.
  • The attacker creates a professional, attractive webpage to offer hard-to-resist promotions to unsuspecting users (fast-food coupons, discounts on vehicle maintenance for the user’s specific model and year, insider stock information, etc.)
  • The user is lured into visiting the malicious webpage, which bypasses the browser’s security mechanisms
  • The attacker installs backdoors in the vehicle IVI system, without the user’s knowledge or permission, to obtain various forms of sensitive data (driving history, conversations recorded by manufacturer-installed microphones, videos recorded by built-in cameras, contact lists, text messages, etc.)

The possible crimes enabled by such a process are wide ranging. By creating a fraudulent scheme to steal the user’s identity, for example, the attacker would be able to open accounts on the user’s behalf or even trick an OEM service team into approving verification requests—at which point the attacker could remotely open the vehicle’s doors and allow a collaborator to steal the car.

Furthermore, the attackers could use the backdoors that they installed to infiltrate the vehicle’s central gateway via the IVI system by sending malicious messages to electronic control units (ECUs). A driver could not only lose control of the car’s IVI system and its geolocation and audio and video data, but also the ability to control speed, steering and other safety-critical functions of the vehicle, as well as the range of vital data stored in its digital clusters.

Positioning today for tomorrow’s threat landscape

Until now there might have been reluctance among OEMs to invest in averting cyberattacks, which haven’t yet materialized in the real world. But a 2023 Gartner Research report, “Automotive Insight: Vehicle Cybersecurity Ecosystem Creates Partnership Opportunities,” is among the industry research documenting a shift in priorities.

Driven by factors such as the significant risk of brand and financial damage from cyberattacks via updatable vehicle functions controlled by software, as well as emerging international regulatory pressures such as the United Nations (UN) regulation 155 (R155) and ISO/SAE 21434, OEMs have begun to emphasize cybersecurity.

And today, they are actively evaluating and, in some cases, even implementing a few powerful capabilities:

  • Security for IVI privacy and identity
  • Detection of IVI app vulnerabilities
  • Monitoring of IVI app performance
  • Protection of car companion apps
  • Detection of malicious URLs
  • 24/7 surveillance of personal data

Investing in cybersecurity in the design stage, versus after breaches, will ultimately prove less expensive and more effective in terms of avoiding or mitigating serious crimes involving money, vehicle and identity theft from compromised personal data by the world’s most savvy and ambitious business criminals.



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