Connected car in the second-hand lot? Don't buy it if you're not hack-savvy

The first owner might still have access. And the second. And so on


Cars are smart enough to remember an owner, but not smart enough to forget one – and that's a problem if a smart car is sold second-hand.

The problem is as simple as you could imagine: people shovelling apps and user services into cars forget that the vehicle nearly always outlives its first owner.

The global head of IBM's X-Force Red penetration-testing team, Charles Henderson, created a flurry at the RSA Conference in San Francisco last week by relating how a connected car app could still access a car he traded in – two years after he'd sold it.

Without naming the machine's maker, Henderson related the kinds of features beloved of high-end marques: “geolocation of the car, climate control, navigation control, it allowed me to remotely honk the car horn … and finally I could unlock the car.”

Henderson feels that none of that should have been possible years after he disposed of the car. Especially as he says he ran a factory reset, reset his garage door and had traded the old car through a factory dealership (which, he has explained in interviews like this with CNN should have revoked his access to the old car).

The situation is, Henderson says, a “catastrophic failure”, but it's one that occurs all over Internet of Things products – cars, houses, light bulbs and the rest. The problem is pretty obvious: much of the industry is treating products as consumables, and any attention that's paid to security is focussed on the first buyer.

“The concept of access revocation only works if it's implemented in a way that's obvious for users. It must be intuitive”, he said.

Whether it comes from standardisation, regulation, or a consensus in the industry, Henderson says everybody – the dealer, the seller, and the next buyer – needs an obvious way to confirm access revocation.

“How can we expect the auto industry to do access revocation right when Fortune 500 companies don't do it well internally?”

Also, and obviously, he added that the mobile phone provides at least one example of what the IoT industry has to do: implement a factory reset that actually works. There's a short version of his presentation in the video here.

Reg comment

Henderson also suggested some kind of centralised platform is needed – to quote him, “identity management for devices is best served when it's centralised.”

He's probably right – but The Register can't help wondering what that's going to look like once a bunch of vendors have talked different vendors in different industries to implement different identity management and access revocation solutions.

It's also hard to imagine how to meet Henderson's wish for customers that are well-enough educated to know what to ask, let alone know how to protect themselves.

As Henderson said: even Fortune 500 companies have trouble managing access and identity revocation properly. “Educate end users” has been a staple of the IT sector for decades. If it was going to work, we'd surely have evidence by now.

Meanwhile, Kaspersky's Secure List blog has details of insecure connected-car apps that store usernames and passwords unencrypted. ®

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