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Automotive Security Part 1 (Attacks & Vulnerabilities)


Model Skewing


This is the first blog of the series to discuss security issues in the automotive domain. With the connected car concept the bidirectional vehicle to vehicle (V2V) communication has become a significant part in autonomous vehicles. Thus security threats are not only limited to a smart car but to autonomus cars as well.

In this blog basic attacks on automotive systems will be discussed.

Introduction to Automotive electronics subsystems

Today’s vehicles consist of electronic systems right from the headlight of a car and LED brake light to the seat control inside the car. The manufacturers have improved the performance of the vehicle by deploying different embedded subsystems. The systems have become core of the automotive architecture.To name a few following are the embedded subsystems in a vehicle

1.Engine ignition

2.Fuel Injection

3.Anti lock brakes

4.Seat control

5.Infotainment system

6.Transmission control

7.Security alarms

8.Light controls

9.Windows control

The onboard devices of a car are controlled by Electronic Control Unit (ECU). The heart of any electronic automotive system is an engine control that critically responds in real time systems. The engine control unit is a 32 bit microcontroller unit (MCU), it is responsible for controlling the process of fuel injection,emission control,AC systems etc.

The figure below shows high level architecture of automotive vehicle where different parts of vehicle mentioned above communicates with ECU.

Source : Leen, Gabriel & Heffernan, D.. (2002). Expanding automotive electronic systems. Computer. 35. 88-93. 10.11092.976923.

Automotive Attack Methods

The growing embedded subsystems in an automotive and their internal communication have created opportunities for attackers to execute various attacks on them. Here we will begin discussing possible attacks in the automotive scenario.

An attacker who wishes to take control of a vehicle finds out the following ways to compromise an electronic control unit (ECU) and finds the feature of an attack.

1.Physical attacks : This involves attacker to access physical ports such as USB, OBD -II and sniff the data.

2.Wireless attacks : These involve attacks on short and long range wireless communication viz. Wi-Fi, BLE, NB-IoT and GSM

3.Sensor attacks : The automotive sensors such as GPS, IMU,LIDAR, RADAR,camera involves sensor fusion for autonomous systems and are major threats to get manipulated.

When combined above attacks results in different attack surfaces. One such attack surface on a high level is an automotive infotainment system also called IVI (In Vehicle Infotainment) system . We will explore it in detail further.

The above image shows some common attack surfaces in automotive.

USB Port : With USB attack on media playback are highly possible along with updating firmware via USB with unauthorized code. Some of attack vectors include following possibilities

i.Running a shell script and install malicious software

ii.Port scanning with USB to ethernet converter and detect vulnerable networking services

iii.DMA(Direct Memory Access) attack against USB by plugging maliciously preprogrammed hotplug device like Digispark ATTiny USB

Multimedia: The sources for multimedia playback are CD, USB,Bluetooth,Aux,UPNP etc.

Malformed media files can be used to exploit media engine services which can give access to system Also intentionally coded multimedia files via CD/USB can become a trojan, thus when played may alter firmware or give access to an attacker to vulnerability.

Third Party Applications: The third party applications are added in the ecosystem of automotive vehicles. These apps can either be installed directly on IVI or installed via a smartphone that connects to IVI remotely. The vulnerability in such applications can undergo MITM attacks between application and server as the majority of such apps are connected to the cloud.

Wireless Communication: The WiFi and BLE communication finds the following vulnerabilities .The wifi used in automotive as DSRC (Dedicated Short Range Communication) with protocol such as Invehicle Internet and Vehicle 2 Everything (V2X)

a.Vulnerability with WiFI

i. Packet sniffing, Jamming and MITM

ii. Common weakness such as open Wifi and weak encryption

iii. Open port scan if Wi-Fi hotspot available in the vehicle

BLE on other hand used in infotainment systems communicates with ECU and is processed by AIPM (Accessory Protocol Interface Module). It is responsible for calls, messages and notifications. Following are attack scenarios for BLE in automotive context

i. DoS by disabling the bluetooth connectivity with driver smartphone

ii. Intercept calls or messages with MITM attack

iii. RCE (Remote Code Execution) is possible

iv. Unpaired and paired attack when device was previously paired.

Diagnostic Ports : The OnBoard Diagnostic II (OBD II) port provides complete access to CAN bus with codes for different operations of peripherals. It can result in replay attacks.

Other Attack Scenarios

As shown in above picture let us discuss different attack scenarios in automotive domain.

PATS : Passive Anti Theft system (PATS) is one of the bear minimum features the car manufacturers provide. The chip in the ignition key communicates with the transponder over a steering column via unique code. When transponder response matches the key code results in successful ignition. The RF communication happens at 434 MHz, thus with RF hacking the code can be updated by an attacker. This in turn denies the ignition start by original key or unauthorized start by an attacker.

TPMS : Tyre Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) is an independent module to monitor the pressure of tyres on a continuous basis. It gets controlled by an independent ECU.Whenever the pressure in the tyre falls below the safety level, there’s a radio signal communication

between the ECU and the tyre pressure monitoring module. Inside, each tyre receiving sensor is wired into this smart junction box of the car.The Smart Junction box can emit very low power, in frequency range of 15 MHz to 434 MHz. The modulation used is amplitude shift keying (ASK) or frequency shift keying (FSK). The attack scenario can be where an attacker gets access to ECU and displays the incorrect readings of low pressure.

RKE : Remote Keyless Entry (RKE) has a key fob that communicates with ECU. Communication range is between 5-20 m approximately. The key fob is responsible for lock/unlock, ignition,power windows control and alarm system. It transmits encrypted radio signals ,the smart key ECU decrypts the data which is then matched with stored data sequence and gets successful authentication. Finally key fob gets connected to CAN and LIN bus. Following are some attack scenarios:

i. DoS attack by disabling the key FOB by jamming signal and learning the sequence of data

ii. Transmitted frequency received and cloned using Software Defined Radio (SDR) gadgets available in the market. Majority vehicles use frequency of 433 MHz or 315 MHZ with Phase Shift Keying (PSK) modulation.

iii. The vehicle can be locked or unlocked by an attacker with RCE

Telematics : Telematics systems in autonomous vehicles are navigation systems such as GPS and GALILEO. The weather info and locations are being updated via these systems. The RF attacks on modulation scheme of baseband radio of module as well as GPS spoofing results in wrong navigation and false weather info.

File System and Services: The NAND flash is being used in automotive to store and fetch data at high speed. Initial Program Loader (IPL) is a bootloader which is executed as soon as ignition turned on.Embedded Transaction File System (ETFS) is R/W directory structure and stores data in structured format.

Different services such as NATP, Monitor service, 3Proxy,HMIGATEWAY, WICOME,SAS service are being used in car.

The successful attacks on above mentioned file systems and services can alter the operation of ECU.


To summarize, in this blog common attack surfaces in automotive have been considered. The IVI system has attack surfaces viz. multimedia, USB ports, diagnostics,third party applications and wireless communication. We have discussed possible attacks on such interfaces. Other than that some of other attack scenarios related to theft such as PATS and RKE have been discussed. The RF attacks viz. TPMS and Telematics that are low and high risk respectively have been briefed.


1.Amara Dinesh Kumar, Koti Naga Renu Chebrolu, Vinayakumar R, Soman KP “ A Brief Survey on Autonomous Vehicle Possible Attacks,Exploits and Vulnerabilities” Oct 2018, arXiv:1810.04144v1

2.Lin tong,Cheng Luhai, “ Common Attacks Against Car Infotainment Systems ”,Automotive Linux Summit July 2019. https://events19.linuxfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ALS19-Common-Attacks-Against-Car-Infotainment-Systems.pdf

3.UCSD and University of Washington “Automotive Attack Surfaces”


4.Automotive Cyber Security: A Crash Course on Protecting Cars Against Hackers https://www.thesslstore.com/blog/automotive-cyber-security-a-crash-course-on-protecting-cars-against-hackers/

5.A. Chattopadhya, K.Lam , “Security of autonomous vehicle as a cyber-physical system”, 2017 7th International Symposium on Embedded Computing and System Design


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