Technology Is Key To Guarding Self-Driving Cars Against Cyberattacks

Justin Fox

Everyone knows what a smartphone is, but the smart car is less well understood. Smart cars are vehicles that use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to self-drive. As these vehicles effectively are autonomous, they could, in theory, reduce the number of traffic collisions caused by human error. They have already found a place in the economies of nations such as Singapore, whose small human workforce has boosted the adoption of self-driving trucks.

The advantage of an autonomous system is based on its ability to analyze road situations as they unfold and take appropriate action instantaneously, without the need for the “thinking time” required by a human driver.

Even so, many IT and security experts say it is virtually inevitable that, just as with any form of software, a hacker could break into the system and take full control of a vehicle – even one that’s occupied and traveling at a high speed.

With many millions of autonomous vehicles potentially coming to roads everywhere in the near future, it is vital that every vehicle has a robust defense to ward off attempts to take control of its systems. While it stands to reason that some variation of a firewall and antivirus software would be the first line of defense, there are additional technologies that could reduce risk.

One technology that could prove beneficial is two-factor authentication. This means that users not only have to provide a password to access a machine, they also must enter a second code that is often completely random and sent to a separate device they own. This would help stop hackers, as without the second device (such as a mobile phone), the password on its own would prove useless.

One issue is that it’s possible that every time a course amendment is set, multiple levels of authentication could be required for verification. Such a system could prove cumbersome and unwieldy; if a person couldn’t access their phone or other secondary-factor device, they couldn’t amend their route in the slightest, no matter the circumstances.

That’s why a biometric security system, which grants access via a scan of the user’s eyes or fingerprints, may be a better solution. While it is often costly to implement, this form of access control is utilized internationally as an alternative to regular passwords that could be easy for hostile parties to acquire. In the context of vehicles, biometric scans could be used to verify whoever is giving commands to the vehicle by matching the person operating the car with a list of pre-approved users. Such a system would protect against hacking as well as regular burglaries, as anyone breaking into a vehicle would be an unsuitable match, perpetually locked outside the systems of control.

While these devices are not foolproof, it is far harder to steal this form of data than it is to hack or steal a mere password. Regular passwords leave more of an online trail and rely on people’s ability to remember them; physically “being the password” (so to speak) negates these areas of weakness. Password reuse (i.e., repeatedly using the same password for different websites or logins) is one of the most common entry points for hackers, one reason why 1 in 10 people in England and Wales last year were the victims of cybercrime.

Another thing to bear in mind with smart car security is the issue of entry points and whether or not you truly need them. Features such as built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other add-ons are nice to have, but are also a potential access point for more nefarious purposes than just the benevolent exchange of information. Disabling such additions is like bricking a gap in a wall, but if you intend to use them, make sure to pay close attention to what is being sent to your vehicle and any potential aberrations that need closer inspection.

Ultimately, though, it is a virtual certainty that the technology used to both attack and defend self-driving vehicles will constantly adapt as each seeks to gain an advantage. With so many consumers likely to acquire a smart car or similar vehicle in the coming years, defenses must be easy to understand and use by people who don’t have an in-depth knowledge of (what’s essentially) online warfare. We can count on people making simple, easily exploitable errors, so education is likely to be the best defense against the coming threat.

No barrier is 100% impenetrable, but the quantity of successful hacks will undeniably be reduced if would-be victims are alert and know the warning signs that should seek help from a cybersecurity expert

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About Justin Fox

Justin is a history graduate from the University of Kent, with a keen interest in current affairs and how the events of today are poised to affect the world of tomorrow. As technology continues to permeate virtually every aspect of our lives, Justin seeks to better understand the latest innovations, in the hopes of better understanding us a society as a result.