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Pacemakers, Cars, Energy Grids: The Tech That Should Not Be Hackable, Is


While laptops and Web services remain the most popular targets for cyber attacks, hackers are gradually turning to life-critical devices and systems.

Smartphones and SIM Cards

SIM cards, which are tiny computer smartcards we get from our cell carriers, are used to identify customers on most cellular networks worldwide. News about how seriously SIM cards are vulnerable to attack hit the wires recently; up to 750 million devices around the globe are potentially hackable, based on the findings of German code-breaker Karsten Nohl, famous for his research in the field of GSM, or Global System for Mobile Communications, telephony security.

GSM is the most popular cellular network standard in the world. (It originally stood for Groupe Special Mobile.) AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), for example, use GSM on their US networks.

Nohl, who earlier pointed out numerous flaws in the security of GSM networks (think wiretapping), said he was able to hack into SIM cards with a specially crafted text message and then impersonate the owner of the phone, read texts, and even use mobile banking.

SIM cards. Photo: Pixabay.

Nohl didn't elaborate on the vulnerability he discovered, to give mobile operators time to fix the issue. That said, he's expected to go into some details at the Black Hat security conference this week. He said that the problem was related to the implementation of DES (Data Encryption Standard) encryption, the standard that is now being surpassed by newer and stronger alternatives, but which is still widely used.

Smartphones are generally vulnerable not only to complex hacking threats, but to some malware as well. In addition, a number of up-to-date smartphones have remote control tools embedded into their mobile systems. The "Find My iPhone" tool from Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), for example, is susceptible to remote hacks. In a heavily publicized case last year a Wired reporter had his iPhone wiped after a hack via security flaws at Apple and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN).


The electronics in your car (even if it is a decade old) exist not just in its navigation and entertainment systems -- your car may also use a computer to set a maximum speed lock or auto brake in case of danger.

While humans still have their fair share of control, computers are building up their presence in automobile control systems; they're meant to assist drivers and ultimately make driving safer and more enjoyable.

On the other hand, electronics are hackable, meaning that your car might soon become as vulnerable to malicious threats as your PC is. Security specialists from Twitter and IOActive recently demonstrated what can happen if somebody hacks into a car: Brakes can be disabled, steering control can be compromised, and a hack can even make a horn blast suddenly.

While the demonstration involved physically jacking the target car, remote attacks are also possible. Luckily, none have been reported so far.

Some speculate, though, that the recent death of a prominent investigative journalist, Michael Hastings, might have been connected to a cyber attack on his car. Yet, as in the case with Barnaby Jack, police said no foul play was suspected in Hasting's car accident on June 18, when the 2013 Mercedes C250 that Hastings was driving slammed into a tree and caught fire.

Ford (NYSE:F) and Toyota (NYSE:TM), makers of the models examined and apparently compromised by some hackers (they broke into a Ford Escape and a Toyota Prius), said that they take hackers seriously, but emphasized the robustness of their cars' protection against wireless attacks.

One type of car hack -- the immobilization of a theft-protection system -- is already common. Just recently, an academic paper that was to reveal the secret codes to start the engines of luxury rides like Bentleys or Lamborghinis was set to be published at the Usenix Security Symposium conference in August. But the paper was banned from publication by a British court as the result of a lawsuit instigated by European car-production powerhouse Volkswagen (OTCMKTS:VLKAY).

Google top management in a driverless car (Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Sergey Brin. Photo courtesy of Google.

So when self-driving cars from Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) eventually hit the market, let's hope they have all possible safety and security flaws addressed.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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