Connected Cars: The Open Road for Hackers

As vehicles become both increasingly complex and better connected to
the Internet, their newfound versatility may be manipulated for
malicious purposes. Three of the most concerning potential threats
looking ahead to the next few years are those posed by
manipulating vehicle operation
and using vehicular systems as
command and control (C2) infrastructure
for illicit cyber activity.

Car Hacking?

Vehicles have come a long way in terms of the high-tech features and
connectivity that come standard in most new models. Modern cars are
controlled almost entirely by software, and many drivers don’t realize
the most complex digital device they own may be in their driveway.
Of the growing number of devices in the “Internet of Things” (IoT),
vehicles are among the most significant additions to the global
Internet. An ever-growing list of features—including web browsing,
Wi-Fi access points, and remote-start mobile phone apps—enhance user
enjoyment, but also greatly expand vehicles’ attack surface, rendering
them potentially vulnerable to advanced attacks. During the past year
especially, numerous proof-of-concept demonstrations have revealed
connected-car vulnerabilities that malicious actors can exploit,
ranging from unauthorized entry to commandeering
the vehicle’s operation
. Unfortunately, as consumer demand
drives ever more features, the opportunities for compromise will
increase as well.


The scourge of ransomware has so far affected thousands of systems
belonging to ordinary individuals, hospitals, and police stations. A
vehicle’s increased connectivity, ever-expanding attack surface, and
high upfront cost make them attractive ransomware targets. In contrast
to ransomware that infects ordinary computer systems, vehicles are
more likely susceptible to ransomware attacks when their disablement
causes knock-on effects.

For example, where a single driver might be able to reinstall his
car’s software with the help of a mechanic to remedy a ransomware
infection, a group of vehicles disabled on a busy highway could cause
far more serious disruption. Victims or municipal authorities may have
little choice but to pay the ransom to reopen a busy commuting route.
Alternatively, a logistics company might suddenly find a large portion
of its truck fleet rendered useless by ransomware. The potential for
lost revenue due to downtime might pressure the company to pay the
ransom rather than risk more significant financial losses.

Malicious C2 and Final Hop Points

One effective law enforcement tactic in countering cyber espionage
and criminal campaigns is identifying, locating and seizing the
systems threat actors use to route malicious traffic through the
Internet. Since many modern vehicles can be better described as a
computer attached to four wheels and an engine, their mobility and
power present challenges to this means of countering threat activity.
We have already witnessed malware designed to hijack IoT devices for
malicious purposes; vehicular systems’ greater computing power,
compared to connected home thermostats, can significantly enhance
their value as a C2 node.

Locating vehicles used to route malicious traffic would present a
major challenge to law enforcement investigation, largely due to their
mobility. We have not yet observed threat actors using connected
vehicle systems to route malicious traffic, but it is most likely that
a vehicle would be used as a final hop point to the intended target
network. The perpetrators may use the vehicle only once, choosing to
hijack the connectivity of a different vehicle on their next
operation, and so on. This ever-changing roster of potential last-hop
nodes situated on highly mobile platforms may allow threat actors to
elude law enforcement for extended periods of time.

Understanding the Risk Landscape

The impact of cyber threats is most often considered in financial
terms—the cost of a breach, whether direct financial losses or
indirect costs of investigation, remediation, and improved security.
As computers increasingly control vehicles, among other critical
devices and systems, the potential for malfunction or manipulation
that causes human harm rises dramatically. Automobile manufacturers
may face greater liability, not only for the car’s physical
components, but its software as well. How long before vehicles need a
“cyber security rating,” similar to that awarded for crash testing and
fuel economy?

These new risks point to the need for automotive manufacturers and
suppliers to not only ensure the traditional operational safety of
their vehicles, but to also secure both the vehicle’s operations and
occupant privacy. This requires an ongoing understanding about the
nature of threats and vulnerabilities in a rapidly evolving landscape,
and building in strong proactive security measures to protect against
these risks. FireEye explores these risks to automotive safety
in our latest FireEye iSIGHT Intelligence and Mandiant Consulting
report: Connected Cars: The Open Road for Hackers. The report
is available
for download here.

FireEye Capabilities

FireEye combines our industry leading threat
, incident
and red team capabilities with our ICS domain expertise
to help the automotive industry improve their prevention, detection
and response capabilities. FireEye’s Red
Team Operations
and Penetration
can provide firms in the automotive industry experience
responding to real-world attacks without the risk of negative
headlines. A one-time risk assessment is not enough, because threat
attackers are consistently evolving.

For more information, contact FireEye.

FireEye iSIGHT Intelligence’s Horizons Team conducts strategic
forecasting to anticipate risks posed by emerging technologies and
geopolitical developments, helping clients and the public better
assess their exposure to a dynamic cyber threat landscape.

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