Peripherals Are Potentially Dangerous

Some auto insurance companies are exploring programs where customers can receive reduced rates in exchange for attaching a dongle to their vehicle’s on-board diagnostics (OBD) port. The dongles then use the diagnostics information provided by the vehicle to track your driving habits. If you’re a “good” driver you can get a discount (and if you’re a “bad” driver you’ll probably get charged more down the road). It seems like a good deal for drivers who always obey speed limits and such but the OBD port has access to everything in the vehicle, which means any dongle plugged into it could cause all sorts of havoc. Understandably auto insurance companies are unlikely to use such dongles for evil but that doesn’t mean somebody else won’t:

At the Usenix security conference today, a group of researchers from the University of California at San Diego plan to reveal a technique they could have used to wirelessly hack into any of thousands of vehicles through a tiny commercial device: A 2-inch-square gadget that’s designed to be plugged into cars’ and trucks’ dashboards and used by insurance firms and trucking fleets to monitor vehicles’ location, speed and efficiency. By sending carefully crafted SMS messages to one of those cheap dongles connected to the dashboard of a Corvette, the researchers were able to transmit commands to the car’s CAN bus—the internal network that controls its physical driving components—turning on the Corvette’s windshield wipers and even enabling or disabling its brakes.

“We acquired some of these things, reverse engineered them, and along the way found that they had a whole bunch of security deficiencies,” says Stefan Savage, the University of California at San Diego computer security professor who led the project. The result, he says, is that the dongles “provide multiple ways to remotely…control just about anything on the vehicle they were connected to.”

I guarantee any savings you get from your insurance company from attaching one of these dongles to your OBD port will be dwarfed in comparison to the cost of crashing your vehicle due to your brakes suddenly being disabled.

This is a perfect example of two entities with little experience in security compounding their failures to create a possible catastrophe. Automotive manufacturers are finally experiencing the consequences of having paid no attention to the security of their on-board systems. Insurance agencies now have a glimpse of what can happen when you fail to understand the technology you’re working with. While a dongle that tracks the driving behavior of customers seems like a really good idea if that dongle is remotely accessible and insecure it can actually be a far bigger danger than benefit.

I wouldn’t attach such a device to my vehicle because it creates a remote connection to the vehicle (if it didn’t the insurance companies would have any reliable way of acquiring the data from the unit) and that is just asking for trouble at this story shows.