Tag Archives: hacking

Experts warn that vehicles are vulnerable to cyberattacks

By Kim Smiley 

By now, you have probably heard of the “internet of things” and the growing concern about the number of things potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks as more and more everyday objects are designed to connect to the internet.  According to a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), cyberattacks on vehicles should be added to the list of potential cybersecurity concerns.  It’s easy to see how bad a situation could quickly become if a hacker was able to gain control of a vehicle, especially while it was being driven.

A Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, can be built to analyze the issue of the potential for cyberattacks on vehicles.  The first step in the Cause Mapping process is to define the problem by filling out an Outline with basic background information as well as how the problem impacts the overall goals.  The Cause Map is then built by starting at one of the goals and asking “why” questions to visually lay out the cause-and-effect relationships. 

In this example, the safety goal would be impacted because of the potential for injuries and fatalities. Why is there this potential? There is the possibility of car crashes caused by cyberattack on cars. Continuing down this path, cyberattacks on cars could happen because most modern car designs include advanced electronics that connect to outside networks and these electronics could be hacked.  Additionally, most of the computer systems in a car are somehow connected so gaining access to one electronic system can give hackers a doorway to access other systems in the car.

Hackers can gain access to systems in the car via direct access to the vehicle (by plugging into the on-board diagnostic port or the CD player) or, a scenario that may be even more frightening, they may be able to gain access remotely through a wireless network.  Researchers have shown that it is possible to gain remote access to cars because many modern car designs connect to outside networks and cars in general have limited cybersecurity built into them. Why cars don’t have better cybersecurity built into them is a more difficult question to answer, but it appears that the potential need for better security hadn’t been identified.

As of right now, the concern over potential cyberattacks on cars is mostly a theoretical one.  There have been no reports about injuries caused by a car being attacked.  There have been cases of cars being hacked, such as at Texas Auto Center in 2010 when a disgruntled ex-employee caused cars to honk their horns at odd hours and disabled starters, but there are few (if any) reports of cyberattacks on moving vehicles.  However, the threat is concerning enough that government agencies are determining the best way to respond to it. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established a new division in 2012 to focus on vehicle electronics, which includes cybersecurity. Ideally, possible cyberattacks should be considered and appropriate cybersecurity should be included into designs as more and more complexity is added to the electronics in vehicles, and objects ranging from pace-makers to refrigerators are designed to connect to wireless networks.

The Morris Worm: The First Significant Cyber Attack

By Kim Smiley

In 1988 the world was introduced to the concept of a software worm when the Morris worm made headlines for significantly disrupting the fledgling internet.  The mess left in the wake of the Morris worm took several days to clean up. The estimates for the cost of the Morris worm vary greatly from $100,000–10,000,000, but even at the lower range the numbers are still substantial.

A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can be used to analyze this issue.  A Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and using the answers to visually lay out the causes that contributed to an issue to show the cause-and-effect relationships.  In this example, a programmer was trying to build a “harmless” worm that could be used to gauge the size of the internet, but he made a mistake.  The goal was to infect each computer one time, but the worm was designed to duplicate itself every seventh time a computer indicated it already had the worm to make the worm hard to defend against.  The problem was that the speed of propagation was underestimated. Once released, the worm quickly reinfected computers over and over again until they were unable to function and the internet came crashing down.  (To view a Cause Map of this example, click on “View PDF” above.)

One of the lasting impacts from the Morris worm that is hard to quantify is the impact on cyber security.  The worm exploited known bugs that no one had worried about enough to fix.  At the time of the Morris worm, there was no commercial traffic on the internet or even Web sites.  The people who had access to the internet were a small, elite group and concerns about cyber security hadn’t really come up.  If the first “hacker” attack had had malicious intent behind it and came a little later it’s likely that the damage would have been much more severe.  While the initial impacts of the Morris worm were all negative, it’s a positive thing that it highlighted the need to consider cyber security relatively early in the development of the internet.

It’s also interesting to note that the programmer behind the Morris worm, Robert Tappan Morris, become the first person to be indicted under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He was sentenced with a $10,050 fine, 400 hours of community service, and a three-year probation. Morris was a 23 year old graduate student at the time he released his infamous worm.  After this initial hiccup, Morris went one to have a successful career and now works in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

NYT Website Disrupted for Hours

By Kim Smiley

On Tuesday, August 27, 2013 the New York Times website went dark for several hours after being attacked by a well-known group of hackers.   Reports of hacked websites are becoming increasingly common and the New York Times was just one of many recent victims.

A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can be used to analyze the recent attack on the New York Times website.  A Cause Map lays out the many causes that contribute to an issue in an intuitive format that illustrates the cause-and-effect relationships.   A Cause Map is useful for understanding all the causes involved and can help when brainstorming solutions.  To see a Cause Map of this example, click on “Download PDF” above.

Some details of how the attack was done have been released, as documented on the Cause Map. The New York Times website itself was not technically hacked, but traffic was redirected away from the legitimate website to another web domain.   To pull off this feat, hackers changed the domain name records for the New York Times website after acquiring the user name and password of an employee at the domain name registrar company.  The employee inadvertently provided the information to the hackers by responding to a phishing email asking for personal information.

The email sent by the hackers looked legitimate enough to fool the employee.

So why did hackers target the New York Times in the first place?  The answer is that the New York Times is one of many western media outlets to be targeted by Syrian Electronic Army (S.E.A.), who has claimed responsibility for the attack.  The S.E.A. supports President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and is generally unhappy with the way the events in Syria have been portrayed in the West.

So the next logical question is how do you protect yourself from a phishing scheme?  The first step is awareness.  Pretty much everybody who uses email can expect to receive some suspicious emails.  A few things to look out for:  attachments, links, misspellings, and a mismatched “from” field or subject line.  Also any alarming language should be a red flag.  For example, an email from your credit card company warning you that your account will be closed unless you take immediate action is probably not the real deal.  A good rule of thumb is to never respond to any email with personal information or to click on links in emails. If you think a request for action may be real, either call the company or open a new web browser window and type in the company’s web address.  It’s best to delete any suspicious emails immediately.

This example is also a good reminder to be aware that websites can get hacked.  A great example of this is when the S.E.A. hacked the Associated Press’s twitter feed last April and used it to announce (falsely) that the White House had been bombed.  That one tweet is estimated to have caused a $136 billion loss in the stock markets as people responded to the news.  In general, it is probably good to be skeptical about anything shocking you read online until the information is confirmed.