I WAS DRIVING 70 mph on the edge of downtown St. Louis when the exploit began to take hold.
Though I hadn’t touched the dashboard, the vents in the Jeep Cherokee started blasting cold air at the maximum setting, chilling the sweat on my back through the in-seat climate control system. Next the radio switched to the local hip hop station and began blaring Skee-lo at full volume. I spun the control knob left and hit the power button, to no avail. Then the windshield wipers turned on, and wiper fluid blurred the glass.
As I tried to cope with all this, a picture of the two hackers performing these stunts appeared on the car’s digital display: Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, wearing their trademark track suits. A nice touch, I thought.
The Jeep’s strange behavior wasn’t entirely unexpected. I’d come to St. Louis to be Miller and Valasek’s digital crash-test dummy, a willing subject on whom they could test the car-hacking research they’d been doing over the past year. The result of their work was a hacking technique—what the security industry calls a zero-day exploit—that can target Jeep Cherokees and give the attacker wireless control, via the Internet, to any of thousands of vehicles. Their code is an automaker’s nightmare: software that lets hackers send commands through the Jeep’s entertainment system to its dashboard functions, steering, brakes, and transmission, all from a laptop that may be across the country.
To better simulate the experience of driving a vehicle while it’s being hijacked by an invisible, virtual force, Miller and Valasek refused to tell me ahead of time what kinds of attacks they planned to launch from Miller’s laptop in his house 10 miles west. Instead, they merely assured me that they wouldn’t do anything life-threatening. Then they told me to drive the Jeep onto the highway. “Remember, Andy,” Miller had said through my iPhone’s speaker just before I pulled onto the Interstate 64 on-ramp, “no matter what happens, don’t panic.”1
As the two hackers remotely toyed with the air-conditioning, radio, and windshield wipers, I mentally congratulated myself on my courage under pressure. That’s when they cut the transmission.
Immediately my accelerator stopped working. As I frantically pressed the pedal and watched the RPMs climb, the Jeep lost half its speed, then slowed to a crawl. This occurred just as I reached a long overpass, with no shoulder to offer an escape. The experiment had ceased to be fun.
At that point, the interstate began to slope upward, so the Jeep lost more momentum and barely crept forward. Cars lined up behind my bumper before passing me, honking. I could see an 18-wheeler approaching in my rearview mirror. I hoped its driver saw me, too, and could tell I was paralyzed on the highway.
“You’re doomed!” Valasek shouted, but I couldn’t make out his heckling over the blast of the radio, now pumping Kanye West. The semi loomed in the mirror, bearing down on my immobilized Jeep
I followed Miller’s advice: I didn’t panic. I did, however, drop any semblance of bravery, grab my iPhone with a clammy fist, and beg the hackers to make it stop.
This wasn’t the first time Miller and Valasek had put me behind the wheel of a compromised car. In the summer of 2013, I drove a Ford Escape and a Toyota Prius around a South Bend, Indiana, parking lot while they sat in the backseat with their laptops, cackling as they disabled my brakes, honked the horn, jerked the seat belt, and commandeered the steering wheel. “When you lose faith that a car will do what you tell it to do,” Miller observed at the time, “it really changes your whole view of how the thing works.” Back then, however, their hacks had a comforting limitation: The attacker’s PC had been wired into the vehicles’ onboard diagnostic port, a feature that normally gives repair technicians access to information about the car’s electronically controlled systems.
A mere two years later, that carjacking has gone wireless. Miller and Valasek plan to publish a portion of their exploit on the Internet, timed to a talk they’re giving at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas next month. It’s the latest in a series of revelations from the two hackers that have spooked the automotive industry and even helped to inspire legislation; WIRED has learned that senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal plan to introduce an automotive security bill today to set new digital security standards for cars and trucks, first sparked when Markey took note of Miller and Valasek’s work in 2013.
As an auto-hacking antidote, the bill couldn’t be timelier. The attack tools Miller and Valasek developed can remotely trigger more than the dashboard and transmission tricks they used against me on the highway. They demonstrated as much on the same day as my traumatic experience on I-64; After narrowly averting death by semi-trailer, I managed to roll the lame Jeep down an exit ramp, re-engaged the transmission by turning the ignition off and on, and found an empty lot where I could safely continue the experiment.
Miller and Valasek’s full arsenal includes functions that at lower speeds fully kill the engine, abruptly engage the brakes, or disable them altogether. The most disturbing maneuver came when they cut the Jeep’s brakes, leaving me frantically pumping the pedal as the 2-ton SUV slid uncontrollably into a ditch. The researchers say they’re working on perfecting their steering control—for now they can only hijack the wheel when the Jeep is in reverse. Their hack enables surveillance too: They can track a targeted Jeep’s GPS coordinates, measure its speed, and even drop pins on a map to trace its route.
All of this is possible only because Chrysler, like practically all carmakers, is doing its best to turn the modern automobile into a smartphone. Uconnect, an Internet-connected computer feature in hundreds of thousands of Fiat Chrysler cars, SUVs, and trucks, controls the vehicle’s entertainment and navigation, enables phone calls, and even offers a Wi-Fi hot spot. And thanks to one vulnerable element, which Miller and Valasek won’t identify until their Black Hat talk, Uconnect’s cellular connection also lets anyone who knows the car’s IP address gain access from anywhere in the country. “From an attacker’s perspective, it’s a super nice vulnerability,” Miller says.
From that entry point, Miller and Valasek’s attack pivots to an adjacent chip in the car’s head unit—the hardware for its entertainment system—silently rewriting the chip’s firmware to plant their code. That rewritten firmware is capable of sending commands through the car’s internal computer network, known as a CAN bus, to its physical components like the engine and wheels. Miller and Valasek say the attack on the entertainment system seems to work on any Chrysler vehicle with Uconnect from late 2013, all of 2014, and early 2015. They’ve only tested their full set of physical hacks, including ones targeting transmission and braking systems, on a Jeep Cherokee, though they believe that most of their attacks could be tweaked to work on any Chrysler vehicle with the vulnerable Uconnect head unit. They have yet to try remotely hacking into other makes and models of cars.
After the researchers reveal the details of their work in Vegas, only two things will prevent their tool from enabling a wave of attacks on Jeeps around the world. First, they plan to leave out the part of the attack that rewrites the chip’s firmware; hackers following in their footsteps will have to reverse-engineer that element, a process that took Miller and Valasek months. But the code they publish will enable many of the dashboard hijinks they demonstrated on me as well as GPS tracking.
Second, Miller and Valasek have been sharing their research with Chrysler for nearly nine months, enabling the company to quietly release a patch ahead of the Black Hat conference. On July 16, owners of vehicles with the Uconnect feature were notified of the patch in a post on Chrysler’s websitethat didn’t offer any details or acknowledge Miller and Valasek’s research. “[Fiat Chrysler Automobiles] has a program in place to continuously test vehicles systems to identify vulnerabilities and develop solutions,” reads a statement a Chrysler spokesperson sent to WIRED. “FCA is committed to providing customers with the latest software updates to secure vehicles against any potential vulnerability.”
If consumers don’t realize this is an issue, they should, and they should start complaining to carmakers. This might be the kind of software bug most likely to kill someone.
Unfortunately, Chrysler’s patch must be manually implemented via a USB stick or by a dealership mechanic. (Download the update here.) That means many—if not most—of the vulnerable Jeeps will likely stay vulnerable.
Chrysler stated in a response to questions from WIRED that it “appreciates” Miller and Valasek’s work. But the company also seemed leery of their decision to publish part of their exploit. “Under no circumstances does FCA condone or believe it’s appropriate to disclose ‘how-to information’ that would potentially encourage, or help enable hackers to gain unauthorized and unlawful access to vehicle systems,” the company’s statement reads. “We appreciate the contributions of cybersecurity advocates to augment the industry’s understanding of potential vulnerabilities. However, we caution advocates that in the pursuit of improved public safety they not, in fact, compromise public safety.”
The two researchers say that even if their code makes it easier for malicious hackers to attack unpatched Jeeps, the release is nonetheless warranted because it allows their work to be proven through peer review. It also sends a message: Automakers need to be held accountable for their vehicles’ digital security. “If consumers don’t realize this is an issue, they should, and they should start complaining to carmakers,” Miller says. “This might be the kind of software bug most likely to kill someone.”
In fact, Miller and Valasek aren’t the first to hack a car over the Internet. In 2011 a team of researchers from the University of Washington and the University of California at San Diego showed that they could wirelessly disable the locks and brakes on a sedan. But those academics took a more discreet approach, keeping the identity of the hacked car secret and sharing the details of the exploit only with carmakers.
Miller and Valasek represent the second act in a good-cop/bad-cop routine. Carmakers who failed to heed polite warnings in 2011 now face the possibility of a public dump of their vehicles’ security flaws. The result could be product recalls or even civil suits, says UCSD computer science professor Stefan Savage, who worked on the 2011 study. “Imagine going up against a class-action lawyer after Anonymous decides it would be fun to brick all the Jeep Cherokees in California,” Savage says.2
For the auto industry and its watchdogs, in other words, Miller and Valasek’s release may be the last warning before they see a full-blown zero-day attack. “The regulators and the industry can no longer count on the idea that exploit code won’t be in the wild,” Savage says. “They’ve been thinking it wasn’t an imminent danger you needed to deal with. That implicit assumption is now dead.”
471,000 Hackable Automobiles
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