Could the kill switch be a death sentence?
Dionis Teshler, the CTO of GuardKnox, responds to a Consumer Watchdog report on a kill switch solution for connected-car cybersecurity.
Although fully autonomous cars may be at least a decade away, many may be surprised to learn that any car built after 2003 is susceptible to cyber hackers, and security should still be a key concern. These vehicles contain interconnected technology even though the functions and features may seem rudimentary or outdated by 2019’s standards. Meaning, they can easily be turned into moving weapons by malicious hackers, putting passengers, other vehicles, and pedestrians in danger. Depending on the connected car’s features, cybercriminals can hack into the vehicle’s embedded systems to listen in on conversations, steal personal data, or even control the vehicle and cause it to crash.
There is currently no official standard for vehicle cybersecurity, but it must be a top priority as vehicles become increasingly connected and cyberattacks proliferate year over year. By 2023, in-vehicle commerce opportunities will drive the total number of smart vehicles above 775 million, according to a report by Juniper Research (https://bit.ly/2lF5rZU). OEMs and other auto companies are racing to provide the best solutions to keep consumers safe and their property protected from cyberattacks.
Recently, a Consumer Watchdog report, “Kill Switch: Why Connected Cars Can Be Killing Machines and How to Turn Them Off,” pointed out that fleet hacks of connected vehicles could become full-blown major national security threats that endanger all drivers on the road and beyond (https://bit.ly/2m9DUQv). Imagine a large fleet of connected trucks and their cargo being held for ransom until hackers get paid, or them stopping traffic with the fleets or even ramming other cars of the roads. According to the report, a fleet-wide hack could cause about 3000 deaths just from the one breach.
The Consumer Watchdog’s proposed solution is for all vehicles to have Internet kill switches, which would allow drivers to choose whether or not they want their vehicles to be connected. While I applaud raising concerns about auto cybersecurity, and am glad that this report emphasizes the associated dangers of this problem, the solution is not feasible given modern vehicle architecture and the importance that connectivity provides to automobile manufacturers.
The biggest misunderstanding is that vehicles are not just connected for infotainment purposes; cars have connectivity for telemetry, GPS tracking, performance tracking, and more. Disconnecting screens would not work with modern vehicle architecture; consumers could potentially lose full functionality of their vehicle depending on the brand. Moreover, OEMs are constantly collecting data from current cars on the road to improve and optimize the next vehicle model with strategic upgrades from data-driven decisions such as better power, greater efficiency, and more functional software options.
In short, a kill switch would inhibit a lot more than just infotainment, which is considered only a secondary benefit of a connected vehicle from the OEM perspective. A kill switch may not even allow some cars to turn on without the connectivity. In addition, OEMs would be jeopardizing their own business by putting key data collection at stake, which would hinder their innovation and ability to improve the consumer experience.
Furthermore, the kill-switch solution is predicated on the notion that something malicious has already infiltrated vehicles’ cybersecurity defenses. Whenever the driver inevitably turns off the kill switch to use connectivity again, even for just five minutes, that malicious actor can resume its attack and it is likely already too late for mitigation. Similar to malware on a laptop, disconnecting only momentarily delays the problem, but does not ultimately solve it. By the time the driver detects a problem, it would likely be too late to effectively use a kill switch.
There is no silver bullet for replacing computer security and certainly none for the complexities of auto cybersecurity. Consumers do not need a kill switch; they need a cybersecurity approach that secures moving platforms to best protect themselves and their loved ones on the road.