Friday 23 February 2018

The hackers are out to get you at home or in car

Remote takeover of a car in transit shows that tech firms and police face a huge challenge

The hacked Jeep
The hacked Jeep

Emma Barnett

Zooming down Route 40 in St Louis, Missouri, a man at the wheel of a Jeep began to notice things going badly wrong with his car.

First his air-conditioning blasted on; then a random photo of two men appeared on his digital dashboard. This was swiftly followed by his music system springing into life and his windscreen wipers suddenly whipping back and forth at their fastest speed.

Then came the worst bit by far - without him doing a thing, the Jeep's engine died, leaving the car crawling along at a snail's pace on a busy freeway.

Feeling nervous just reading this? Imagine being the driver, who couldn't do a thing to regain control. Thankfully, however, Andy Greenberg (of Wired magazine) was in on the act - and a far braver technology journalist than I ever was. He had agreed to be hacked by two of his tech buddies who, though miles away, had taken control of his vehicle's on-board computer in order to highlight the security vulnerabilities of modern cars that are hooked up to the internet. The experiment culminated with the two security engineers remotely crashing Greenberg's car into a ditch.

Unsurprisingly, Fiat Chrysler, this particular vehicle's manufacturer, has now issued a "patch" that befuddled car owners must download or beg their local dealer to install for them. You could argue that this stunt - in a car of all places - is highly irresponsible. Or you could be grateful. Grateful that this clever crew have forced car companies to face up to their responsibilities in the digital era.

Personally, I think when something like this happens it's too easy to moan and mourn the days when you, and you alone, had control of your car, or who saw your saucy honeymoon snaps. Yes, it certainly was a simpler world. These days, giant technology companies power the cars we travel in, and can dictate how we store our naughty photos. And between us and these companies, there are some even naughtier hackers.

But rather than harking back to the old days, we need to focus our attention on the technology companies, hackers and our woeful police.

Though sometimes tempting, we must not turn our backs on the advances that new technology will bring. Automation, to varying degrees, has offered salvation to billions - from those of us profoundly grateful for the domestic dishwasher all the way through to the patients of doctors performing remote surgeries from miles away.

The deal with this modern age must be that if we consumers put our faith in companies using cutting-edge technology, these businesses need to meet us half way with assurances of total security. Internet start-ups must grow up. Innovation doesn't excuse poor corporate governance or relieve a business from its duty of care to its users.

For instance, while I love how Google continues to push the boundaries with driverless cars and its forays into artificial intelligence, I don't much like how it strives to gather so much personal information about its users. Nor do I feel assured about putting my family photos into Apple's iCloud so soon after intimate images of Hollywood A-listers have been hacked (and no, before you ask, my photos aren't those kind of snaps). And what about our own state-run security services? While companies must up their game, so must largely tech-illiterate police.

Hackers, moral or not, will hack. They will hack our cars, our emails, and in years to come, no doubt, our thermostats, fridges, pacemakers, even airliners - anything and everything that will be connected to the so-called "internet of things".

Technology didn't invent the societal ills that underpin crime; in fact it has hugely alleviated them. So instead of whining about the new technological avenues that miscreants can explore, it's time for companies and police to up their game. Fast.


Sunday Independent

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