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McAfee puts Barnaby Jack on car-jacking hackers' case

Security whiz to thwart actual crashes

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McAfee has put together an elite team of researchers to investigate how to go about protecting car systems from next-generation hacking attacks.

Members of the team include Barnaby Jack, the security researcher best known for demonstrating ways that crooks can force ATMs to spit out cash and for highlighting security shortcomings in insulin pumps.

Modern cars increasingly rely on embedded processors. Security researchers have already demonstrated how these embedded systems might be hacked to generating bogus tire blowout warning messages or pull off other dangerous exploits. Attack scenarios include injecting malware using via on-board diagnostics systems, wireless connections and booby-trapped CDs.

No such attacks have ever taken place in the real world but car manufacturers and auto industry associations are already aware of the possible risk.

SAE International, a global association of more than 128,000 engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive and commercial-vehicle industries, has put together a number of technical papers that look into information security risks that look beyond potential concerns about hacking into electronic vehicle access systems, which have been an issue for several years.

"Vehicles include more and more electronic systems and open communication channels based on public standards, making them vulnerable to a variety of attacks," the abstract to one recent SAE technical paper explains. "Security mitigation mechanisms are implemented in software and might be supported by a controller with basic security features," it adds.

"Any cyber security breach carries certain risk," said Jack Pokrzywa, SAE's manager of ground vehicle standards, the Daily Tech reports. "SAE Vehicle Electrical System Security Committee is working hard to develop specifications which will reduce that risk in the vehicle area."

Meanwhile Ford and Toyota have both recruited information security experts to look into the potential problem. Ford, for example, has hired infosec experts to make its SYNC in-vehicle communications and entertainment system more resistant against hackers and malware.

The McAfee team will be assigned to looking into much the same issues but with a slightly different mandate, geared towards developing security software and other protection technologies suitable for car-based embedded computing systems.

Bruce Snell, a McAfee executive managing the firm's research on car security, told Reuters via PCPro. "If your laptop crashes you'll have a bad day, but if your car crashes that could be life threatening.

"I don't think people need to panic now. But the future is really scary," he added. ®

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