Car hacks loom as autos go wireless

Tomorrow's vehicles will communicate wirelessly to reduce accidents, and experts are working to ensure hackers can't abuse the technology

Pretty soon cars could be warning one another of driving hazards that drivers aren't observant enough to avoid. That's the hope of the Connected Vehicle Trade Association, a group exploring the potential benefits of two-way car communications using GPS and wireless technologies.

The undertaking sounds potentially beneficial: The experts involved believe that 83 percent of unimpaired vehicle-related fatalities (those not connected to drugs, alcohol, and so on) might be avoided by boosting vehicular intelligence. Still, any technology capable of transmitting personal data -- in this case, auto-related information -- and controlling our cars could be abused by hackers.

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One of the first projects being explored and likely coming to your automobile in the next few years is enabling cars to transmit and receive speed and location information via built-in GPS and wireless radio. The goal is to help vehicles avoid collisions on the road by either sending an alert signal to the driver or instructing the auto to take evasive action, such as slowing down or changing lanes.

Again, it's tough to discount those potential benefits, but it's also difficult to overlook the fact that this sort of technology can result in potential privacy problems and hacker abuse. Fortunately, some of my concerns were laid to rest after speaking with William Whyte, chief scientist at Security Innovation. He's a cryptographer who's participated in developing various vehicle communication standards for years. I could tell that he and his associated standards body are just as concerned about privacy and security as any of us would be.

Whyte informed me of a few more details about car communications. First, the system's wireless spectrum lives at 5.9GHz and has been reserved for that purpose since 1998. The vehicle communication standard is part of IEEE working group 1609, officially known as the Wireless Access in Vehicle Environments (WAVE). The organization encompasses peer-to-peer, single-hop transient (that is, not stored) transmissions. There are no centralized computers.

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