The PJ Tatler

NewScientist: A $25 Gadget Can Hack, Take Control of a Car

The car crash that killed journalist Michael Hastings, we have been told, shows no signs of foul play. But surely it’s unusual for a car to strike a tree so fast that it ejects the heavy engine block about 40 yards. Hastings reportedly hadn’t had a drink in about five years. It’s also unusual for a reporter to email friends that he needs to go off the radar because he’s working on a big story, and then he ends up dead in a fiery crash.

I’m not saying anything, other than that it’s all pretty unusual.

A pair of Spanish engineers is about to debut a gadget that they say allows them to use cellular technology to take control of your car.

Clarke cited research, carried out for the US National Academy of Sciences, showing that “connected cars” – equipped with built-in cellular technology used by dashboard apps and engine-monitoring software – can be hacked remotely. But proof that it could be done in practice has been lacking.

That looks set to change on 27 July, when Spanish engineers Javier Vázquez Vidal and Alberto Garcia Illera will give a demonstration at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. They have built a $25 device that lets them bypass security in a car’s electronic control unit.

The brains of a modern car, the ECU is a computer that controls engine power, transmission and braking. Mechanics can diagnose faults by plugging a laptop into it via standard wired connectors such as the CAN bus. Alternatively, remote diagnostics and software updates can take place over a cellular network, as happens with services such as General Motors’ OnStar and Mercedes-Benz’s Mbrace.

Vázquez Vidal and Garcia Illera will show how their device – which they claim uses a $1 chip to break encryption – can read from and write data to the flash memory of commonly used ECUs, made by Bosch of Germany. In this way, they can get more horsepower out of a car, or tell it to burn less fuel. “And it would take no time to gain total control over a vehicle – deploying an airbag, activating the brakes, or immobilising a car at any moment,” says Vázquez Vidal.

Their current device has to be plugged into the car to work, but they’re working on a wireless version.