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Computer scientists have brought new meaning to the term war driving by hacking into a moving car's wirelessly-connected warning systems and generating fake error messages.

A team from the University of South Carolina and Rutgers sent fake tire pressure messages to the onboard computer, generating bogus warning messages. Tire pressure monitoring systems have been compulsory for US vehicles since 2008. The same technology may soon become compulsory in Europe, The H Security reports.

The researchers got the transmission of fake messages to work over a range of up to 40 metres or, more impressively, between two moving vehicles in close proximity travelling at 70kph. The technology to carry out the hack only costs about $1,500 but the trick reportedly took a great deal of ingenuity to pull off. The clever bit involved spoofing wireless sensors and transmitting messages rather than bypassing security controls, which were notable by their absence, as the researchers explain:

Reverse-engineering of the underlying protocols revealed static 32 bit identifiers and that messages can be easily triggered remotely, which raises privacy concerns as vehicles can be tracked through these identifiers.

Further, current protocols do not employ authentication and vehicle implementations do not perform basic input validation, thereby allowing for remote spoofing of sensor messages. We validated this experimentally by triggering tyre pressure warning messages in a moving vehicle from a customized software radio attack platform located in a nearby vehicle.

The researchers presented their findings, which included recommendations on how to improve in-car wireless network security and privacy, in a paper presented to the 19th Usenix Security Symposium in Washington on Thursday. Screenshots of the hack in action can be found in a write-up of the attack by motoring news site Jalopnik, here.

Cars are increasingly run using multiple embedded micro-processors. This has opened up a new avenue of research for computer security scientists, but up until now demonstrated hacks have relied on obtaining a physical connection to a car's computer. The latest research shows that wireless hacks are possible, so we should be thankful that malware infections of vehicle systems have never occurred. ®

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