Welcome to another episode of “In Case Things Weren’t Already Scary Enough,” where we tell you about new things that should have you cowering in a corner.
In today’s installment, just in time for the season in which millions of Americans take to the roads, we focus on the possibility that terrorists could turn your automobile against you.
You know those “HELP” buttons many cars have nowadays? In GM vehicles, it’s ONSTAR®. In BMW it’s BMW Assist. Ford has MyFord Touch™. If you drive a Yugo, it’s the button that says “FORGET THE BUTTON. JUST LEAVE THE CAR AT THE SIDE OF THE ROAD AND WALK AWAY.”
You press the button, and the car suddenly starts talking to you. Unlike the GPS lady who ignores you when you curse at her, the person who answers the HELP button actually converses with you so you can pretend you’re David Hasselhoff in Knight Rider and your car is K.I.T.T. and you’re about to have all sorts of heroic adventures instead of having to admit to the anonymous person to whom you are talking that you have a flat tire and would prefer to have someone else change it for you.
Well, unsurprisingly, the technology that allows that disembodied voice to know exactly where you are, and send you help, or creepily unlock your car doors or start your engine, involves computers. Which led West Virginia Senator Jay “Worrywart” Rockefeller to ask the following question at a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing:
“Can some 14-year-old in Indonesia shut a bunch of cars down because everything is wired up?”
Well, first of all, Jay, it’s good to know that our representatives are really cool and hip to the lingo all the kids are using. And secondly, you may be interested to hear that researchers from the University of Washington (Go Huskies!) and the University of California-San Diego (Go Tritons!) were able to hack into a late-model car and unlock car doors, eavesdrop on conversations, and turn the engine on and off. It isn’t clear why they did this; possibly the owners of those cars were a tad late on their tuition payments. But the point is, if university researchers were able to do it, you can bet a 14-year-old Indonesian can (Go 14-year-old Indonesian!).
This all has the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concerned enough to start a cyberterrorism department, mostly because every other government agency has one and the NHTSA didn’t want to feel left out. (The Department of Agriculture is even looking into the possibility that the corn has ears.)
Our government is worried that cyberterrorists could hack into our cars (which have been described as “rolling computer networks”) and take control of them remotely to cause mayhem on our nation’s highways. Just think of the havoc that would occur if cars signaled turns they didn’t make, or sped up and tailgated you just because you were only going 15 mph over the speed limit in the left lane, or slowed down immediately after cutting in front of you.
OMG! The terrorists have already taken control!
Seriously, I freak out when I’m on a Web conference and the cursor on my computer screen starts moving by itself. I can’t imagine what I’d do if my car suddenly began doing hueys of its own volition.
And what would happen if, while you were driving along in your Jeep with your manly fishing buddies, a terrorist hacked into your high-tech Bluetooth vehicle infotainment system and began playing the secret Broadway showtune playlist from your iPod? Or what if you, Ms. Use-Up-Even-Your-Unlimited-Minutes-Every-Month, are gabbing away on your hands-free device when Allison Qaeda breaks in and informs you that she’s in your bedroom with your husband and which drawer do you keep the lubricant in?
Acts like that could destroy our society and sink America to its foundation!
Of course, if our cars really are hackable, all the terrorists (or 14-year-old Ananda in Jakarta) would have to do is cut into our GPS systems and have the nice lady with the speech defect that makes her voice go higher or lower in mid-sentence tell us to drive off cliffs. We’d ignore all the “road ends ahead” and “DANGER! CLIFF!” signs because she is telling us to continue straight for three miles. And while we were all sailing off into space like Wile E. Coyote, the last words any of us would hear would be “Recalculating! Recalculating!”
But don’t worry. As I said, our government is on this problem, and, as always, the safety of Americans is their first concern, so I’m sure they’ll solve this as soon as possible.
You know, just like that gun thing.
See you soon.