Developers of automotive software want hackers to find its flaws

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A consortium of three leading automotive research organizations has announced the development of a universal, free, and open-source framework to protect wireless software updates in vehicles. The development team has issued a challenge to security experts and ‘white hat’ hackers everywhere to try to find vulnerabilities in the system before it is adopted by the automotive industry.

The new system, called Uptane, evolves the widely used TUF (The Update Framework) – developed by New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering assistant professor of computer science and engineering, Justin Cappos – to secure software updates. Uptane is a collaboration between NYU Tandon, the University of Michigan Transport Research Institute (UMTRI), and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and is supported by contracts from the US Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate.

Modern cars contain dozens of computers or ECUs (electronic control units) that control everything from safety equipment, such as airbags, brakes, engine and transmission, to entertainment systems. The increasing complexity of modern cars accompanies an increasing likelihood of flaws in the software. To combat this, vehicle makers are equipping ECUs with a secure Software Over-The-Air (SOTA) update capability, allowing the software to be changed without visiting a service depot, resulting in fewer recalls and greater customer satisfaction. However, hackers can target these software update mechanisms to install malicious software, viruses, or even ransomware, the results of which could be extremely dangerous.

Uptane goes beyond TUF in order to address the unique problems posed by automotive software. For example, it allows auto makers to completely control critical software, but to share control when appropriate, such as when law enforcement agencies need to tune a vehicle for off-road conditions. It also helps auto makers to quickly deploy secure fixes for a vulnerability exploited in an attack or to remotely update a car’s electronics. At a recent meeting at UMTRI’s Ann Arbor headquarters in Michigan, the development working group publicly released the Uptane design to auto makers representing more than three quarters of the vehicles on US roads, plus automotive suppliers and government agencies.

The Uptane group has been holding regular design workgroups to develop a universal framework that could enhance the security mechanisms, protecting cars as soon as next year. As is standard practice in open-source projects, the team called upon security experts everywhere to help them find flaws in the proposed framework, so that a secure final version can be adopted. The Uptane research is led by principal investigators Cappos at NYU Tandon, Sam Lauzon at UMTRI, and Cameron Mott at SwRI.

Cappos noted, “Although widespread attacks are still difficult and expensive, they lie within the capabilities of nation-state cyber warriors, and it is time to begin securing the infrastructure, particularly as automotive electronics increase.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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