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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Where is the firewall in your car?

25 Mar 2024

Most of us are aware that the internet can be a very hostile and dangerous place.

If it's not some scammer trying to use social engineering to gain access to your passwords and various online accounts, it's malware disguised as a handy app or ultility that you can download for free.

This is why some companies make a fortune selling anti-virus software and why Microsoft includes Windows Defender as a standard part of their operating systems these days.

With so much valuable information residing on your computer or phone and being transmitted through the net, there's a fortune to be made by those who are evil and smart enough to steal it.

And now that threat comes to... your car!

Modern cars are replete with computers and connectivity.

It would be hard to find any EV these days that doesn't have OTA updates for its critical systems and which doesn't have more computers onboard than the Apollo 11 lunar lander.

This era of computers and connectivity has the potential to make cars every bit as vulnerable to cyberattack as your computer or your phone.

We've already seen off-the-shelf devices such as the Flipper that can effectively sidestep the security mechanisms built into modern cars and provide keyless access by mimicking a genuine keyfob, for instance. How ironic is it that the very tech that manufacturers have developed to safeguard your vehicle is now its greatest vulnerability. It's actually a whole lot harder, and more destructive, to try and break into or steal an old-school car that relies on conventional keys than it is one with electronic security.

Although I'm unaware of any works or viruses designed to deliberately target private vehicles, this story on The Reg indicates that some of the tech fitted to trucks is already at risk.

Surely it's only a matter of time (as the tabloid media would say) before some bright-spark comes up with a way to cripple your car and demand a ransome for its re-activation.

Imagine, it's 7am on a Monday morning and you jump in your car for the commute to work -- only to see a message on the LCD that says "Your car has been disabled by (insert menacing hacker name here)... send 0.0001 BTC to this wallet to re-activate your car".

Your choices are simple... pay a small sum and get to work on time, or call the dealer and have your vehicle towed for reprogramming while you also have to find some other way to get to the office and explain why you're an hour late. The latter option is not only going to be a lot less convenient but also potentially far more expensive -- hence many will opt for the cheaper path and hackers stand to make a fortune.

In the old days, a car's firewall was the metal panel that separated the engine-bay from the passenger compartment. It seems that, despite not having an engine, EVs will also require a firewall -- to keep the evil little hackers out of your system.

Also imagine the huge strategic advantage that would be associated with a potential enemy being able to disable an opponent's entire transport fleet with the flick of a switch, thanks to covertly installed malware that simply sits there, potentially for years, until the requisite code is activated.

I'm sure this potential threat is already being considered by countries such as the USA as they continue their economic and political battles with China, especially now that Sino EVs seem to be the future.

Don't we live in interesting times?

Carpe Diem folks!

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