Don’t Hit the (Techno-)Panic Button on Connected Car Hacking & IoT Security

by on February 10, 2015 · 0 comments

do not panicOn Sunday night, 60 Minutes aired a feature with the ominous title, “Nobody’s Safe on the Internet,” that focused on connected car hacking and Internet of Things (IoT) device security. It was followed yesterday morning by the release of a new report from the office of Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) called Tracking & Hacking: Security & Privacy Gaps Put American Drivers at Risk, which focused on connected car security and privacy issues. Employing more than a bit of techno-panic flare, these reports basically suggest that we’re all doomed.

On 60 Minutes, we meet former game developer turned Department of Defense “cyber warrior” Dan (“call me DARPA Dan”) Kaufman–and learn his fears of the future: “Today, all the devices that are on the Internet [and] the ‘Internet of Things’ are fundamentally insecure. There is no real security going on. Connected homes could be hacked and taken over.”

60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl, for her part, is aghast. “So if somebody got into my refrigerator,” she ventures, “through the internet, then they would be able to get into everything, right?” Replies DARPA Dan, “Yeah, that’s the fear.” Prankish hackers could make your milk go bad, or hack into your garage door opener, or even your car.

This segues to a humorous segment wherein Stahl takes a networked car for a spin. DARPA Dan and his multiple research teams have been hard at work remotely programming this vehicle for years. A “hacker” on DARPA Dan’s team proceeded to torment poor Lesley with automatic windshield wiping, rude and random beeps, and other hijinks. “Oh my word!” exclaims Stahl.

Never mind that we are told that the “hackers” who “hacked” into this car had been directly working on its systems for years—a luxury scarcely available to the shadowy malicious hackers about whom DARPA Dan and his team so hoped to frighten us. The careful setup, editing, and Lesley Stahl’s squeals made for convincing theater.

Then there’s the Markey report. On the surface, the findings appear grim. For instance, we are warned that “Nearly 100% of cars on the market include wireless technologies that could pose vulnerabilities to hacking or privacy intrusions.” Nearly 100%? We’re practically naked out there! But digging through the report, we learn that the basis for this claim is that most of the 16 manufacturers surveyed responded that 100% of their vehicles are equipped with wireless entry points (WEPs)—like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, navigation, and anti-theft features. Because these features “could pose vulnerabilities,” they are listed as a threat—one that lurks in nearly 100% of the cars on the market, at that.

Much of the report is similarly panicky and sometimes humorous (complaint #3: “many manufacturers did not seem to understand the questions posed by Senator Markey.”) The report concludes that the “alarmingly inconsistent and incomplete state of industry security and privacy practice,” warrants recommendations that federal regulators — led by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — “promulgate new standards that will protect the data, security and privacy of drivers in the modern age of increasingly connected vehicles.”

Take a Deep Breath

As we face an uncertain future full of rapidly-evolving technologies, it’s only natural that some might feel a little anxiety about how these new machines and devices operate. Despite the exaggerated and sometimes silly nature of techno-panic reports like these, they reflect many people’s real and understandable concerns about new technologies.

But the problem with these reports is that they embody a “panic-first” approach to digital security and privacy issues. It is certainly true that our cars are become rolling computers, complete with an arsenal of sensors and networking technologies, and the rise of the Internet of Things means almost everything we own or come into contact with will possess networking capabilities. Consequently, just as our current generation of computing and communications technologies are vulnerable to some forms of hacking, it is likely that our cars and IoT devices will be as well.

But don’t you think that automakers and IoT developers know that? Are we really to believe that journalists, congressmen, and DARPA Dan have a greater incentive to understand these issues than the manufacturers whose companies and livelihoods are on the line? And wouldn’t these manufacturers only take on these risks if consumer demand and expected value supported them? Watching the 60 Minutes spot and reading through the Markey report, one is led to think that innovators in this space are completely oblivious to these threats, simply don’t care enough to address them, and don’t have any plans in motion. But that is lunacy.

No Mention of Liability?

To begin, neither report even mentions the possibility of massive liability for future hacking attacks on connected cars or IoT devices. That is amazing considering how the auto industry already attracts an absolutely astonishing amount of litigation activity. (Ambulance-chasing is a full-time legal profession, after all.) Thus, to the extent that some automakers don’t want to talk about everything they are doing to address security issues, it’s likely because they are still figuring out how to address the various vulnerabilities out there without attracting the attention of either enterprising hackers or trial lawyers.

Nonetheless, contrary to the absurd statement by Mr. Kaufman that “There is no real security going on” for connected cars or the Internet of Things, the reality is that these are issues that developers are actively studying and trying to address. Manufacturers of connected devices know that: (1) nobody wants to own or use devices that are fundamentally insecure or dangerous; and (2) if they sell such devices to the public, they are in for a world of hurt once the trial lawyers see the first headlines about it.

It also still quite unclear how big the threat is here. Writing over at Forbes yesterday, Doug Newcomb notes that “the threat of car hacking has largely been overblown by the media – there’s been only one case of a malicious car hack, and that was an inside job by a disgruntled former car dealer employee. But it’s a surefire way to get the attention of the public and policymakers,” he correctly observes. Newcomb also interviewed Damon McCoy, an assistant professor of computer science at George Mason University and a car security researcher, who noted that car hacking hasn’t become prevalent and that “Given the [monetary] motivation of most hackers, the chance of [automotive hacking] is very low.”

Security is a Dynamic, Evolving Process

Regardless, the notion that we can just clean this whole device security situation up with a single set of federal standards, as the Markey report suggests, is appealing but fanciful. “Security threats are constantly changing and can never be holistically accounted for through even the most sophisticated flowcharts,” observed my Mercatus Center colleagues Eli Dourado and Andrea Castillo in their recent white paper on “Why the Cybersecurity Framework Will Make Us Less Secure.” “By prioritizing a set of rigid, centrally designed standards, policymakers are neglecting potent threats that are not yet on their radar,” Dourado and Castillo note elsewhere.

We are at the beginning of a long process. There is no final destination when it comes to security; it’s a never-ending process of devising and refining policies to address vulnerabilities on the fly. The complex problem of cybersecurity readiness requires dynamic solutions that properly align incentives, improve communication and collaboration, and encourage good personal and organizational stewardship of connected systems. Implementing the brittle bureaucratic standards that Markey and others propose could have the tragic unintended consequence of rendering our devices even less secure.

Standards Are Developing Rapidly

Meanwhile, the auto industry has already come up with privacy standards that go above and beyond what most other digital innovators apply to their own products today. Here are the Auto Alliance’s “Consumer Privacy Protection Principles: Privacy Principles for Vehicle Technologies and Services,” which 23 major automobile manufacturers agreed to abide by. And, according to a press release yesterday, “automakers are currently working to establish an Information Sharing Analysis Center (or “Auto-ISAC”) for sharing vehicle cybersecurity information among industry stakeholders.”

Again, progress continues and standards are evolving. This needs to be a flexible, evolutionary process, instead of a static, top-down, one-size-fits-all bureaucratic political proceeding.

We can’t set down security and privacy standards in stone for fast-moving technologies like these for another reason, and one I am constantly stressing in my work on “Why Permissionless Innovation Matters.” If we spend all our time worrying about hypothetical worst-case scenarios — and basing our policy interventions on a parade of hypothetical horribles — then we run the risk that best-case scenarios will never come about.  As analysts at the Center for Data Innovation correctly argue, policymakers should only intervene to address specific, demonstrated harms. “Attempting to erect precautionary regulatory barriers for purely speculative concerns is not only unproductive, but it can discourage future beneficial applications of the Internet of Things.” And the same is true for connected cars.

Trade-Offs Matter

Technopanic indulgence isn’t always merely silly or annoying—it can be deadly.

“During the four deadliest wars the United States fought in the 20th century, 39 percent more Americans were dying in motor vehicles” than on the battlefield. So writes Washington Post reporter Matt McFarland in a powerful new post today. The ongoing toll associated with human error behind the wheel is falling but remains absolutely staggering, with almost 100 people losing their lives and almost 6,500 people injured every day.

We must never fail to appreciate the trade-offs at work when we are pondering precautionary regulation. Ryan Hagemann and I wrote about these issues in our recent Mercatus Center working paper, “Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars.” That paper, which has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming edition of the Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy, outlines the many benefits of autonomous or semi-autonomous systems and discusses the potential cost of delaying their widespread adoption.

When it comes to the various security, privacy, and ethical considerations related to intelligent vehicles, Hagemann and I argue that they “need to be evaluated against the backdrop of the current state of affairs, in which tens of thousands of people die each year in auto-related accidents due to human error.” We continue on later in the paper:

Autonomous vehicles are unlikely to create 100 percent safe, crash-free roadways, but if they significantly decrease the number of people killed or injured as a result of human error, then we can comfortably suggest that the implications of the technology, as a whole, are a boon to society. The ethical underpinnings of what makes for good software design and computer-generated responses are a difficult and philosophically robust space for discussion. Given the abstract nature of the intersection of ethics and robotics, a more detailed consideration and analysis of this space must be left for future research. Important work is currently being done on this subject. But those ethical considerations must not derail ongoing experimentation with intelligent-vehicle technology, which could save many lives and have many other benefits, as already noted. Only through ongoing experimentation and feedback mechanisms can we expect to see constant improvement in how autonomous vehicles respond in these situations to further minimize the potential for accidents and harms. (p. 42-3)

As I noted here in another recent essay, “anything we can do to reduce it significantly is something we need to be pursuing with great vigor, even while we continue to sort through some of those challenging ethical issues associated with automated systems and algorithms.”

No Mention of Alternative Solutions

Finally, it is troubling that neither the 60 Minutes segment nor the Markey report spend any time on alternative solutions to these problems. In my forthcoming law review article, “The Internet of Things and Wearable Technology: Addressing Privacy and Security Concerns without Derailing Innovation,” I devote the second half of the 90-page paper to constructive solutions to the sort of complex challenges raised in the 60 Minutes segment and the Markey report.

Many of the solutions I discuss in that paper — such as education and awareness-building efforts, empowerment solutions, the development of new social norms, and so on – aren’t even touched on by the reports. That’s a real shame because those methods could go a long way toward helping to alleviate many of the issues the reports identify.

We need a better public dialogue than this about the future of connected cars and Internet of Things security. Political scare tactics and techno-panic journalism are not going to help make the world a safer place. In fact, by whipping up a panic and potentially discouraging innovation, reports such as these can actually serve to prevent critical, life-saving technologies that could change society for the better.


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