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Car Hacking with Boston Brakes and More

The Hastings Car Crash@topgold grabbed the Michael Hastings shot from AboveTopSecret.

WHILE LIVING IN GERMANY, I drove slowly by several high-speed Autobahn accidents involving mangled Mercedes Benz cars. It was unusual to see one explode at high speed and burn like Thermite (as Michael Hastings' car appears) so I'm deeply intrigued by the theory of a car hacking incident.

Former Marine Gordon Duff has shared information about the “Boston Brakes” technique, in which “drive by wire” cars like the Mercedes in the shot, can be manipulated remotely to simulate an out-of-control accident. [1]

I set up a news alert to follow this story and got some very interesting scenarios from Richard Clarke, the former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism. [2] Clarke confirms intelligence services have successfully tested the “drive by wire” concept. [3] I've used Audioboo to talk about the on-board diagnostic unit and how it's possible to hack one to control a new car.


When you put Hastings in context (he brought down General Stanley McCrystal [4] and was investigating CIA director John Brennan), you've all to prerequisites of a conspiracy theory. A single car accident accompanied by an intense fire in an otherwise perfectly running Mercedes raises eyebrows. 

During DefCon [5], Chris Valasek of IOActive, a security firm, released a video of a Toyota Prius controlled by a laptop in the back seat. The footage shows the car crawling along as the digital speedometer reads 199 mps and the fuel gauge switches from full to empty. After the back seaters tap a few laptop keys, the car's steering wheel jerks and the seatbelt pre-tensioners lock down, pining the driver to his seat.

Two Spanish researchers, Javier Vázquez Vidal and Alberto Garcia Illera, have assembled a device from parts they bought on eBay for less than €23. [6] The phone-sized gadget is designed to hack ECUs to tweak a car's acceleration, torque, power and fuel consumption. Some might call this car hacking, others would see it as a way for next-generation boy racers to adjust braking and acceleration for greater impact during street performances.

You plug Illera and Vidal's gadget into the OBD (on-board diagnostic port) and use an Android phone to adjust its settings. If you engineered the gadget to sit under the car's wheelarch, it could easily be used to immobilise a vehicle via text message.

Researchers at the University of California and the University of Washington hijacked a Chevrolet Impala wirelessly. Using laptops and smartphones, the researchers unlocked doors, disabled alarms, tracked journeys with the on-board GPS, stopped the engine, and recorded conversations happening in the car. They turned off the car's headlights when it reached a certain speed. They got conspiracy theorists talking about the myriad of attack code sequences. [7]

There's no way consumers are going to resist the appification of new cars. Quite the contrary--the average new car buyer wants easy synchronicity of smartphones to their cars for audio, connectivity, and entertainment. But recent white hat reports give rise to security firms like McAfee entering the mix as we try to stay abreast the rapid change of embedded systems rolling off automobile manufacturing lines around the world.

1. Gordon Duff's Veterans Today includes details eerily similar to Hastings fiery accident scene as there were no skid marks. Duff's analysis has overtones for the high speed crash of Princess Diana's Mercedes in Paris.

2. Kurt Nimmo -- "Richard Clarke: Hastings Accident “Consistent with a Car Cyber Attack” in InfoWars, June 24, 2013.

3. Mike Hogan -- "Was Michael Hasting's car hacked?" in the Huffington Post, June 24, 2013.

4. Michael Hastings -- "The Runaway General" in Rolling Stone, June 22, 2010.

5. ioASIS -- "Adventures in Automotive Networks and Control Units", August 1, 2013.

6. Paul Marks -- "$25 gadget lets hackers seize control of a car"" in New Scientist, July 17, 2013.

7. Nova -- "Tadayoshi Kohno", October 17, 2012.