Car Theft: The High-Tech World of Car Hackers

Car Theft

Gone are the days when car thieves had to physically break into a vehicle and hotwire it before making a getaway. Hackers have become the new kings of car theft as tech-savvy criminals are finding new ways to exploit the advanced technology in our vehicles.

Thanks to the rapid advancements in technology, car hackers can now access and control our cars with just a few clicks. It’s not science fiction—it’s a harsh new reality.

Car hackers can penetrate a car’s keyless entry system, disable the alarms, and even start the engine without a physical key. How do these car hackers manage to pull it off, and what can we do to protect ourselves?

What Makes a Car Hackable?

Cars are rapidly becoming a collection of computers on a set of wheels. Four main categories of computer systems each play a separate role in keeping your wheels on the road.

Drivetrain systems manage the battery (or fuel), monitor emissions, operate cruise control, and more.

Safety systems collect data from inside and outside the vehicle, as well as manage functions like lane correction or automatic braking.

Infotainment systems operate music and video and manage the Bluetooth wireless system. These systems also connect with your devices and manage connections to cellular or Wi-Fi networks.

Navigation systems provide a real-time map of the current location and step-by-step directions.

All of these computers must interface with each other. For example, the safety system must be able to communicate with the drive train or navigation systems. To make all these systems work together, they can’t be compartmentalized. All devices in the car must be set up to trust each other.

The result? If an attacker hacks into one of the computers, they can easily access other computers in the car.

Common Car Theft Techniques

Tech-savvy car thieves can whisk away your prized vehicle within seconds without leaving a trace behind using these popular techniques:

Hijacking wireless keys. The attacker intercepts the radio signals emitted by your car’s key fob. It then relays the signal to an accomplice standing at the ready near the car. Another method is to eavesdrop on the radio signal and make a recording, then “replay” the recording to unlock the car.

Throwback attack. A design flaw in Hyundai and Kia vehicles allows thieves to simply break a window and insert a USB connector into a diagnostics USB slot on the steering column to steal the car.

Hacking the network control. All the different computers in a car communicate with each other via a controller area network bus. This CAN bus was not designed to be secure, which makes it the perfect entry point for hackers. Once inside the CAN bus, hackers can access all the other computer systems in the car.

Cloning. The engine control unit stores a copy of the wireless key code, and thieves can clone it to a blank key fob.

Hackers can also access a car’s onboard diagnostics panel, meant for technicians, through a physical port or wireless connection. Thieves can even break a headlight to reach the CAN bus connection and buy special Bluetooth speakers retrofitted with malicious code to unlock the doors.

There Are Other Serious Consequences To Car Hacking

Apart from losing your car, there are other terrifying implications to the ease with which tech-savvy car thieves can control our vehicles.

Diminished Vehicle Safety

Once a hacker controls your car, they can override the driver’s actions or inject malicious software to manipulate functions like braking or steering. Flaws in Tesla’s code have allowed security researchers to hijack some security features of a Tesla Model 3. They connected via the car’s Bluetooth connection—while the car was moving.

Loss of Data Privacy

Cars collect a shockingly wide range of data about their owners. A data breach like the two previous Toyota data breaches can contain highly sensitive information. Much of this data is up for sale to marketing companies.

But what could happen if hackers get access to your personal information via the car’s computer systems? Car hackers with access to the CAN bus could track your locations, take video footage, or record conversations within the vehicle through built-in microphones.

A Few Tips Against Car Hacking

As technology advances, the vulnerabilities in our cars’ digital systems will also increase. It will become a constant race between hackers and manufacturers. If you want to be prepared for emerging threats:

● Get an old-school steering wheel lock.

● Park in a well-lit, locked, or security-protected area if possible.

● Use strong and unique passwords for car-related apps and systems to prevent hackers from accessing your vehicle functions via the vehicle telematics service.

● Use a VPN with a threat protection feature on your connected devices. Although a VPN can’t secure your car’s Bluetooth connections, it can protect your Wi-Fi and mobile data communications and help prevent account takeovers via car-related apps.

● Get software updates when carmakers discover vulnerabilities.

Stay Updated to Stay Ahead

It’s a new era, and for a while, we may have to combine old and new tech to keep our cars safe. We can use physical deterrents like steering wheel locks in combination with sophisticated digital security measures to protect our vehicles from this new, rising class of car thieves. However, manufacturers must invest in cybersecurity measures to help make these new software systems safer.

Shashank Sharma
Shashank is a tech expert and writer with over 8 years of experience. His passion for helping people in all aspects of technology shines through his work. He is also the author of the book "iSolution," designed to assist iPhone users. Shashank has completed his master's in business administration, but his heart lies in technology & Gadgets.

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