Autonomous Vehicles Under Attack: Cyber Dashboard Standards and Class Action Lawsuits

by on March 14, 2015 · 0 comments

In a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the Internet of Things, Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) “announced legislation that would direct the National highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish federal standards to secure our cars and protect drivers’ privacy.” Spurred by a recent report from his office (Tracking and Hacking: Security and Privacy Gaps Put American Drivers at Risk) Markey argued that Americans “need the equivalent of seat belts and airbags to keep drivers and their information safe in the 21st century.”

Among the many conclusions reached in the report, it says, “nearly 100% of cars on the market include wireless technologies that could pose vulnerabilities to hacking or privacy intrusions.” This comes across as a tad tautological given that everything from smartphones and computers to large-scale power grids are prone to being hacked, yet the Markey-Blumenthal proposal would enforce a separate set of government-approved, and regulated, standards for privacy and security, displayed on every vehicle in the form of a “Cyber Dashboard” decal.

Leaving aside the irony of legislators attempting to dictate privacy standards, especially in the post-Snowden world, it would behoove legislators like Markey and Blumenthal to take a closer look at just what it is they are proposing and ask whether such a law is indeed necessary to protect consumers. For security in particular, there may be concerns that require redress, but if one looks at the report, it becomes apparent that it lacks a very important feature:: no specific examples of real car hacking are mentioned. The only examples illustrated in the report are described in brief detail:

An application was developed by a third party and released for Android devices that could integrate with a vehicle through the Bluetooth connection. A security analysis did not indicate any ability to introduce malicious code or steal data, but the manufacturer had the app removed from the Google Play store as a precautionary measure.

Great! The company solved the problem. What about the other instance cited in the report?

Some individuals have attempted to reprogram the onboard computers of vehicles to increase engine horsepower or torque through the use of “performance chips”. Some of these devices plug into the mandated onboard diagnostic port or directly into the under-the-hood electronics system.

So the only two examples of “car hacking” described in the Markey report are essentially duds. The first is a non-issue, since the company (1) determined there was little security risk involved and (2) removed the item from the market anyways, just to be sure. The second is, in a sense, hacking, but it is individual car owners doing it to their own cars. Neither of these cases appears to be sufficient grounds for imposing a set of arbitrary and, in many cases, capriciously anti-innovation approaches to privacy and data security in cars.

In the wake of the report’s release, this past Tuesday, March 10, General Motors, Toyota, and Ford were all hit with a nationwide class action lawsuit, alleging that the companies concealed “dangers posed by a lack of electronic security in a vast swath of vehicles.” Specifically, the lawsuit is aimed at the presence of controller area network (CAN) buses, which act as data hubs between the various electronic systems in a car. These systems are, indeed, susceptible to hacking, but no more than any personal computer that is connected to the Internet.

The trouble with this lawsuit, brought by the Stanley Law Group, is that it has not cited any specific harms that have occurred as a result of this “defect” (as a side note, saying a computer being susceptible to hacking constitutes a defect in design is the equivalent of saying an airplane that is susceptible to lightning strikes is fundamentally defective). Rather, the plaintiffs argue that “[w]e shouldn’t need to wait for a hacker or terrorist to prove exactly how dangerous this is before requiring car makers to fix the defect.”

As Adam Thierer and I pointed out in our 2014 paper, Removing Roadblocks to Intelligent Vehicles and Driverless Cars:

Manufacturers have powerful reputational incentives at stake here, which will encourage them to continuously improve the security of their systems. Companies like Chrysler and Ford are already looking into improving their telematics systems to better compartmentalize the ability of hackers to gain access to a car’s controller-area-network bus. Engineers are also working to solve security vulnerabilities by utilizing two-way data-verification schemes (the same systems at work when purchasing items online with a credit card), routing software installs and updates through remote servers to check and double-check for malware, adopting of routine security protocols like encrypting files with digital signatures, and other experimental treatments. (pg. 40-41)

It’s always easy to see the potential for abuse and harm with any new emerging technology, but optimism and fortitude in the face of the uncertain is what helps society, and individuals, grow and progress. Car hacking, while certainly a viable concern, is not so ubiquitous that it necessitates a heavy-handed regulatory approach. Rather, we should permit various standards to emerge and attempt to deal with possible harms. In this way, we can experiment to properly determine what approaches work and what do not. Federal standards imposed from on high assume that firms and individuals are not capable of working through these murky issues. We should be a bit more optimistic about the human capacity for ingenuity and adaptability.

To end on something of a more optimistic note, Tom Vanderbilt of Wired magazine gives keen insight into the reality of regulating based on hypothetical scenarios:

Every scenario you can spin out of computer error – what if the car drives the wrong way – already exists in analog form, in abundance. Yes, computer-guidance systems and the rest will require advances in technology, not to mention redundancy and higher standards of performance, but at least these are all feasible, and capable of quantifiable improvement. On the other hand, we’ll always have lousy drivers.



Additional Reading 

Previous post:

Next post: