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Hackable car alarms leave three million cars at risk of hijack


March 08, 2019

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Hackable car alarms leave three million cars at risk of hijack

Millions of car owners were left at risk of having their vehicles stolen, because of the poor security of third-party app-connected car alarms.

After-market car alarms, designed to add an additional layer of security for vehicles, have been found to be seriously lacking – even when sometimes marketed as “unhackable.”

New research by Pen Test Partners suggests in fact that installing a third-party car alarm can in fact make your vehicle less secure, and even open opportunities for criminals to hijack your vehicle.

Researchers examined alarms manufactured by Pandora and Clifford (known in the United States as “Viper”). Both produce alarms that can be accessed and controlled via smartphone apps, and are being used inside some three million cars.

In the past Pandora has brazenly marketed its product as “Unhackable.” That’s a brave (some would say foolhardy) claim for any vendor to make in this day and age.

Sure enough, Pandora’s product was found to be seriously lacking – failing with an elementary IDOR (Insecure Direct Object Reference) vulnerability whereby all an attacker had to do was send a different user’s email address as a parameter to Pandora’s backend to initiate a password reset.

According to the researchers, the same attack could also be used against administrators in order to provide access to multiple vehicles.

Once a hacker has logged into a hacked account they can find out where vehicles are, determine which types of vehicles they are (in order to steal to order, or target the highest value cars).

Cars can be unlocked, and the engine can be started and stopped remotely.

In a YouTube video, the researchers demonstrated how they could tail a targeted vehicle, remotely set off its alarm (causing the driver to stop to investigate), and then immobilise it. A little brute force would be all that was required to steal the keys from the driver and steal their vehicle.

In the case of another alarm the researchers discovered they were able to remotely access the microphone of a car alarm, snooping on any conversations which were happening in the vicinity.

Ken Munro of Pen Test Partners summed up the situation as, “this is really bad.”

The researchers acted responsibly informing the vendors of the problems with their alarms, and both have now been confirmed to be fixed. Let’s hope Pandora has learnt not to claim that anything is “unhackable again”.

But how many other similar products might be out there, developed by vendors with a false sense of confidence about their invincibility, but riddled with similarly serious security holes?




Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s.

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