White-hat hackers called to test automotive cybersecurity
January 18, 2017
BROOKLYN, New York, January 18, 2017 – A consortium of researchers today announced the development of a universal, free, and open-source framework to protect wireless software updates in vehicles. The team issued a challenge to security experts everywhere to try to find vulnerabilities before it is adopted by the automotive industry.
The new solution, called Uptane, evolves the widely used TUF (The Update Framework), developed by NYU Tandon School of Engineering assistant professor of computer science and Engineering Justin Cappos to secure software updates. Uptane is a collaboration of NYU Tandon, the University of Michigan Transport Research Institute (UMTRI), and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and is supported by contracts from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate.
Modern cars contain dozens of computers – called ECUs (electronic control units) – that control everything from safety equipment (airbags, brakes, engine, and transmission, and more) to entertainment systems. The increasing complexity of modern cars accompanies an increasing likelihood of flaws in the software. To combat this, vehicle makers are equipping ECUs with a secure Software Over-The-Air (SOTA) update capability, allowing the software to be changed without visiting a service depot, resulting in fewer recalls and greater customer satisfaction. However, hackers can target these software update mechanisms to install malicious software, viruses, or even ransomware, the results of which could be catastrophic.
In 2013, a single attack, spread by software updates and configuration management systems in South Korea, cost banks and media companies an estimated three-quarters of a billion dollars. The notorious Target attack spread the same way, as did the Flame malware, which damaged Iranian centrifuges and sped through vulnerabilities in Microsoft's update software. Experts agree: Cars and trucks are similarly vulnerable.
“Although widespread attacks are still difficult and expensive, they lie within the capabilities of nation-state cyber warriors, and it is time to begin securing the infrastructure, particularly as automotive electronics increase,” Cappos said.
Uptane goes beyond TUF in order to address the unique problems posed by automotive software. For example, it allows automakers to completely control critical software but to share control when appropriate – for example, when law enforcement needs to tune a vehicle for off-road conditions. It also helps automakers to quickly deploy secure fixes for a vulnerability exploited in an attack or to remotely (and inexpensively) update a car’s electronics.
In a meeting at UMTRI’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters yesterday with automakers representing more than three quarters of the vehicles on U.S. roads, plus automotive suppliers and government agencies, the Uptane working group publicly released the Uptane design. The group has been holding regular design workgroups to develop a universal framework that could enhance the security mechanisms, protecting cars as soon as next year.
As is standard practice in open-source projects, the team called upon security experts everywhere to help them find flaws in the proposed framework so that a secure final version can be adopted.
The NYU Tandon School of Engineering dates to 1854, when the New York University School of Civil Engineering and Architecture as well as the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute (widely known as Brooklyn Poly) were founded. Their successor institutions merged in January 2014 to create a comprehensive school of education and research in engineering and applied sciences, rooted in a tradition of invention, and entrepreneurship and dedicated to furthering technology in service to society. In addition to its main location in Brooklyn, NYU Tandon collaborates with other schools within the country’s largest private research university and is closely connected to engineering programs in NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai. It operates business incubators in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn and an award-winning online graduate program. For more information, visit http://engineering.nyu.edu.
About Southwest Research Institute
SwRI is an independent, nonprofit, applied research and development organization based in San Antonio, Texas, with nearly 2,655 employees and an annual research volume of $559 million. Southwest Research Institute and SwRI are registered marks in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. For more information about Southwest Research Institute, please visit newsroom.swri.org or www.swri.org.