Everything is hackable: get over it

An experiment by Andy Greenberg carried out for Wired, and published on July 21 in which two hackers demonstrated how easy it is to interfere with the controls of a Jeep Cherokee he was driving, starting with the air conditioning, the radio, the windshield wipers, and ending up cutting the transmission and the power brakes, has prompted the vehicle’s manufacturer, Chrysler, to recall no less than 1.4 million cars on the roads to try to fix the vulnerability.

This is the kind of problem that isn’t going to be solved by a bit of extra software, and has proved very hard to patch, requiring hands-on attention, forcing the company to tell owners to take their vehicles back to where they bought them, or to use a USB stick that Chrysler is sending out to update their software.

Car makers are going out of their way to make their vehicles as much like a smartphone as possible, permanently connected and ready to receive information of all kinds, so little wonder that Wired’s piece has set off alarms: Chrysler had no choice, despite the cost, both in the short term, and in the longer, as regards its image and reputation.

Fiat-Chrysler is the first company forced to recall its vehicles for this reason, but certainly won’t be the last. Drastic though the measure is, it’s better than being the first car maker responsible for the death of a driver due to a software vulnerability.

More and more everyday items are now permanently connected to the web or managed by programmable software. The big battle facing the telecoms companies is to see which of them can add more connected objects: of the more than 2.1 million “customers” AT&T attracted over the last quarter, more than half were cars, and 600,000 were tablets or other non-smartphone devices.

When we see Google building a whole campus at Carnegie-Mellon dedicated to the Internet of Things, or the University of Michigan create a full scale city to test self-driving vehicles, it is clear that, at least in the West, we find ourselves an increasingly connected world. Think about it: even down to your bicycle, your washing machine and fridge, parking spaces, traffic lights, your front-door lock, lights, office, everything. And as we know all too well by now, anything that is connected can be hacked.

It doesn’t matter what security measures are put in place; you can make it more difficult, but you cannot make it impossible: the hackers will find a way in. That’s not fatalism, that’s the simple truth.

At the same time, it is also true that if I want to murder somebody, I can simply tamper with their brakes, for example. In a sense, it’s the same as hacking. Fortunately, the vast majority of us don’t go around doing these things just because we can. We make a conscious decision not to do harm.

As more and more objects are connected to the net, it gets easier to hack into them. The hackers interfering with the Jeep Andy Greenberg was driving around in were sitting comfortably at home, 15 kilometers away. No need for them to crawl under a car parked in the street or to break into a garage. The possibilities are endless. But as said, opportunity is one thing, acting on it is another. For the moment, as far as we know, nobody has hacked into anybody else’s connected objects with the intention of doing them harm.

Today’s automobiles are infinitely safer and more comfortable than they were even a few decades ago, thanks to technology. Some older cars maybe more fun to drive, but only for a couple of hours.

The same process is happening with more and more things, and soon, remembering the days when our lock was not connected to the internet will be to evoke a time when things were not as good as they are now. But in the meantime, there will be countless hacking episodes, from mischief making such as increasing or lowering the temperature in our homes, to more serious attacks. This is the way it’s always been with technology: there are people out there who love putting products to the test, and as a result, we often see improvements to those original products.

And anybody who thinks that to avoid such dangers we are better off without technology is living in a world of their own, because this world has always been shaped by technology. And that’s just the way technology works.

(En español, aquí)