Have you ever watched a movie where a snarky young computer hacker wreaks havoc with civic infrastructure, and wondered if it could happen in real life?
Well, a team of researchers researchers from the University of Michigan had that same question. So they looked into a scenario like this one, featured in the remake of The Italian Job:
“Was that really possible?â€ said Branden Ghena, who was on the research team. â€œCould you actually change the light colors? Is that a thing that can really happen, or are these systems as secure as we hoped they were?”
Turns out, the answer is yes â€“ it really can happen.
â€œThe first thing we discovered was these radios didnâ€™t have any encryption on them,â€ said Ghena. â€œAnd they all had default passwords as well.â€
Road agencies use the radios to transmit information to the traffic controller (thatâ€™s the hardware that sits in those metal boxes on the ground near an intersection), and to network with other signals down the road. So if a hacker could manipulate one signal, they could also affect other signals.
The team found safety overrides to prevent the Italian Job scenario â€“ green lights in all directions. But they found vulnerabilities like unencrypted wireless networks, and hackable traffic controllers â€“ that could allow hackers to snarl traffic. Say, with all flashing red lights.
â€œThey could cause a lot of congestion, a lot of backup,â€ said Ghena. â€œMoreover, they could do the other movie thing which is turn all the lights green in their direction. So youâ€™ve got a straight path through.â€
Ed Skoudis is with Counter Hack, which trains government agencies and the military on improving cyber-security. He says he’s not surprised by the U of M team’s findings.
Skoudis says it should raise alarms about the security of other systems.
â€œI mean, it’s an important story in itself. But it’s kind of a toe in the door of this bigger issue of all kinds of computer systems â€“ the whole infrastructure of modern cities is controlled by computer networks.”