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Researchers fear the terror threat from automobiles

Which kind of robot will be the first to arise and smite us? A study called Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile suggests we keep an eye on the family car.

The paper, written by Karl Koscher and a team of 10 other researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California San Diego, was presented at the 2010 IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) symposium on security and privacy, in Berkeley, California.

The-dancing-car-from-a-Ci-005

Unlike the mindless jalopies of the past, it points out, Today’s automobile is no mere mechanical device, but contains a myriad of computers.

This myriad has powers to do good things for us humans, as well as bad things to us. Already, in some cases, the microchip hordes quietly, beneficently take control from the driver. The Lexus LS460 luxury sedan can automatically parallel-park itself. Many generals Motors cars will soon have what the study calls integration with Twitter.

The team’s goal was to look past the goodness and see how hard it would be to cause trouble.

Limiting themselves to the here and now (we concern ourselves solely with the vulnerabilities in today’s commercially available automobiles), they tell, in professionally dull, let’s-remember-we’re-engineers fashion, how they conducted an experimental reign of terror:

We have demonstrated the ability to systematically control a wide array of components including engine, brakes, heating and cooling, lights, instrument panel, radio, locks, and so on. Combining these we have been able to mount attacks that represent potentially significant threats to personal safety. For example, we are able to forcibly and completely disengage the brakes while driving, making it difficult for the driver to stop. Conversely, we are able to forcibly activate the brakes, lurching the driver forward and causing the car to stop suddenly.

The study focuses on automobiles. But indirectly, it forsees the day when our very toasters and teapots might turn against us. There is little publicly available research about the threat of hijackable household appliances. In 1996, security experts based partly at the Rand Corporation wrote a report called Information Terrorism: Can You Trust Your Toaster? More mundanely, Austin Houldsworth of the Royal College of Art in London created what may be the world’s most dangerous teapot, and the quickest. Houldsworth tells how it works: The heating elements within the kettle contain thermite, which … burns at 2,500 degrees.

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