Unfixable Automobile Computer Security Vulnerability
There is an unpatchable vulnerability that affects most modern cars. It’s buried in the Controller Area Network (CAN):
Researchers say this flaw is not a vulnerability in the classic meaning of the word. This is because the flaw is more of a CAN standard design choice that makes it unpatchable.
Patching the issue means changing how the CAN standard works at its lowest levels. Researchers say car manufacturers can only mitigate the vulnerability via specific network countermeasures, but cannot eliminate it entirely.
Details on how the attack works are here:
The CAN messages, including errors, are called “frames.” Our attack focuses on how CAN handles errors. Errors arise when a device reads values that do not correspond to the original expected value on a frame. When a device detects such an event, it writes an error message onto the CAN bus in order to “recall” the errant frame and notify the other devices to entirely ignore the recalled frame. This mishap is very common and is usually due to natural causes, a transient malfunction, or simply by too many systems and modules trying to send frames through the CAN at the same time.
If a device sends out too many errors, then—as CAN standards dictate—it goes into a so-called Bus Off state, where it is cut off from the CAN and prevented from reading and/or writing any data onto the CAN. This feature is helpful in isolating clearly malfunctioning devices and stops them from triggering the other modules/systems on the CAN.
This is the exact feature that our attack abuses. Our attack triggers this particular feature by inducing enough errors such that a targeted device or system on the CAN is made to go into the Bus Off state, and thus rendered inert/inoperable. This, in turn, can drastically affect the car’s performance to the point that it becomes dangerous and even fatal, especially when essential systems like the airbag system or the antilock braking system are deactivated. All it takes is a specially-crafted attack device, introduced to the car’s CAN through local access, and the reuse of frames already circulating in the CAN rather than injecting new ones (as previous attacks in this manner have done).