Researchers say hackers could use vehicles to gridlock cities

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How scary is this?  Researchers at Georgia Tech have sounded the alarm, warning that hackers could gridlock large cities like Atlanta, Ga., or New York City, by hacking the computer system in automobiles.

Or worse, they could also theoretically attack the vehicle’s computer to cause an accident or run over a pedestrian, researchers said.

The study was co-authored by Skanda Vivek and David Yanni of Georgia Tech and Jesse Silverberg of Multiscale Systems, Inc.

Vivek, Yanni, and Silverberg reported:

In the year 2026, at rush hour, your self-driving car abruptly shuts down right where it blocks traffic. You climb out to see gridlock down every street in view, then a news alert on your watch tells you that hackers have paralyzed all Manhattan traffic by randomly stranding internet-connected cars.

Flashback to July 2019, the dawn of autonomous vehicles and other connected cars, and physicists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Multiscale Systems, Inc. have applied physics in a new study to simulate what it would take for future hackers to wreak exactly this widespread havoc by randomly stranding these cars. The researchers want to expand the current discussion on automotive cybersecurity, which mainly focuses on hacks that could crash one car or run over one pedestrian, to include potential mass mayhem.

They warn that even with increasingly tighter cyber defenses, the amount of data breached has soared in the past four years, but objects becoming hackable can convert the rising cyber threat into a potential physical menace.

“Unlike most of the data breaches we hear about, hacked cars have physical consequences,” said Peter Yunker, who co-led the study and is an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Physics.

It may not be that hard for state, terroristic, or mischievous actors to commandeer parts of the internet of things, including cars.

“With cars, one of the worrying things is that currently there is effectively one central computing system, and a lot runs through it. You don’t necessarily have separate systems to run your car and run your satellite radio. If you can get into one, you may be able to get into the other,” said Jesse Silverberg of Multiscale Systems, Inc., who co-led the study with Yunker.

In simulations of hacking internet-connected cars, the researchers froze traffic in Manhattan nearly solid, and it would not even take that to wreak havoc. Here are their results, and the numbers are conservative for reasons mentioned below.

“Randomly stalling 20 percent of cars during rush hour would mean total traffic freeze. At 20 percent, the city has been broken up into small islands, where you may be able to inch around a few blocks, but no one would be able to move across town,” said David Yanni, a graduate research assistant in Yunker’s lab.

Read more of the study here.

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