Most people don’t give much thought to the tire pressure monitoring systems used on production vehicles starting in 2007. When the light on the dashboard illuminates, you know it’s time to check your air pressure; aside from that, TPMS is largely ignored by most drivers. That may not be the case for hackers, as a group from the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University has proven that a car’s ECU can be accessed via the tire pressure monitoring system.
How? Technology Review didn’t go into specific details for a lot of reasons, but the basic premise is simple. TPMS sensors transmit data to the ECU, and that data can be intercepted and decoded. Once decoded, malicious code can be inserted, and in some cases can actually be used to shut down a car’s ECU. Locking up the ECU may be an extreme example of what’s possible, but hackers can also insert codes to trigger false dashboard warning lights, and use TPMS transmitted data to tracks a vehicle’s movement without the owner’s knowledge.
What do you need to do this? About $1,500 worth of hardware and software, including a programmable radio transmitter, a custom built circuit board, shareware software, a whole lot of in-depth knowledge and an endless supply of patience.While possible under controlled circumstances, hacking a vehicle is unlikely in the real world. Not every vehicle’s ECU can be accessed via the TPMS (and Technology Review was careful to not name the vehicles used in the experiment), and writing malicious code that has an impact on your vehicle is largely a trial and error process once you find a car you can hack.
How worried do you need to be? As it turns out, not worried at all. Even if hackers had the hardware and software necessary to target your vehicle, they’d still need to shadow your vehicle for quite a while to gain the required information. TPMS systems communicate data infrequently, roughly every one to two minutes. Tire sensors have a limited broadcast range, which would require hackers to use a directional antenna; in short, if you’re being tailed by a group of nerdy looking characters who keep aiming an antenna at your tires, be concerned. Otherwise, you’ve got plenty of other things to worry about – for now, at least.
Thanks to my buddies Steve and Colin for the tip on this!