Skip to main content

Security experts at McAfee & other firms developing tools to protect cars from cyber attacks

With the integration of modern technology into cars comes the increased risk of in-vehicle hacker attacks. But a number of virus-fighting firms are working against that threat.

Reuters reported this week that Intel Corp's McAfee unit, best known for PC virus-killing software, is just one of the various companies looking for a way to protect vehicles' communications systems from attacks.

Despite positive technological advances, security experts told Reuters that auto manufacturers have so far failed at ensuring protection against hackers, who could conceivably tap into vehicles' systems to steal cars, eavesdrop on conversations, and cause intended crashes, though there is so far no record of computer virus-based attacks on automobiles.

Still, vehicle manufacturers are trying to stay ahead of the game. Ford's in-vehicle communications and entertainment system Sync is currently being secured by engineers, a Ford spokesman told Reuters, saying that the company is taking the threat of auto-hacking very seriously.

McAfee executive Bruce Snell told Reuters that automakers are in fact nervous about potential cyber attacks.

"If your laptop crashes you'll have a bad day," he said. "But if your car crashes that could be life threatening."

McAfee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A group of East Coast computer scientists reported last year that computer Trojans can be delivered to cars via sources like onboard diagnostics systems, wireless connections, and even tainted CDs pushed into the stereo system.

Essentially computers on wheels, modern cars run with dozens of tiny computers, or electronic control units (ECUs), which are powered by the same technology used in mobile phones and Bluetooth. The embedded computer code used to connect in-vehicle systems like the engine, brakes, and navigation system, plus lighting, ventilation, and entertainment, open automobiles to a host of opportunities for an attack, Reuters said.

Despite their rush to secure vehicles' systems, electrical engineer Joe Grand said that the average auto company is still lagging about 20 years behind software firms in preventing cyber attacks.