Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Hacking back in news

I’ve previously reported of a “vehicle takeover” performed by a couple of expert computer hackers with a laptop and a Jeep.  In 2015, Charlie Miller and Chris Valacek took partial control of a 2014 Jeep Cherokee (could have been any modern vehicle), messing with its steering, brakes and transmission.

That first experiment tampered with vehicle systems at speeds less than 5 mph, but a subsequent, “scarier” test the team conducted last year achieved unintended acceleration, along with sudden steering and braking at highway speeds.

It was a complex computer hack requiring much time and expertise, but it exposed the reality of potential unwanted interference with virtually every vehicle function.  That’s because vehicle systems like engine management, transmission shifts, steering, brakes, air conditioning, and just about everything else are computer-controlled in modern vehicles.

Such random vehicle computer hacking was thought to be unlikely at the time, but Miller and Valacek wanted to bring the possibility to light so manufacturers could consider safer software in their systems.  Indeed, Fiat Chrysler of America did conduct a voluntary recall, allowing certain vehicles to be updated with enhanced security software.  Undoubtedly, other manufacturers have addressed the issue in their computers, firewalls and system software.

But the topic has surfaced again.  The car hacking revelation was awakened during the recent WikiLeaks dump of 8,671 internal CIA documents revealing that the agency can hack into Samsung TVs, listening and watching people in their homes.  Two bulleted items containing 15 words indicated that the CIA was also exploring how to hack into cars remotely.  The news generated some dire headlines, but my take is that the CIA is supposed to figure out ways to spy on people — it’s part of the job description.

I don’t think that average citizens need to worry about such hacks, but if you are have something to hide, maybe you do.  As a conspiratorial wariness, vehicle hacks could easily gather data about where the car or truck has been and where it’s going.  Intelligence agencies may even find a way to listen in on conversations inside the vehicle.

Conspiracists additionally theorize that agencies like the CIA could use vehicle hacking to plan a targeted assassinations.  Per my recent column on modern vehicle safety, I think that far-fetched notion would have uncertain outcomes.  With all of the safety built into current vehicle design, it would be “iffy” at best to intentionally kill an occupant with certainty.  I’m sure there are more effective ways to get that job done.  According to Miller, who was interviewed on the topic, “The only people who should be concerned are people the CIA plan to assassinate, and if the CIA is planning to assassinate you, car hacking is the least of your problems.”

Also, self-driving cars may provide some relief for those who are panicked about the prospect of hacking.  Self-driving cars rely on multiple sensor inputs before making decisions, making them harder to hack. It’s much easier to hack a system using one or few sensors as compared to a system using many different sensors for its “thinking” process.

Note that the WikiLeak is only said to expose that the CIA is “exploring” the vehicle hacking notion, which implies that they don’t yet have the ability or desire to do so.  More alarming is the step-by-step “how to” on television spying — but that has little to do with driving.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at