Thieves Are Hacking Cars to Steal, and It Could Get Worse

Houston Police Department is worried.

Houston PD/YouTube

Houston’s Police Department has sounded the alarm on a new form of crime where hackers trick car computers into starting the ignition. As drivers depend on vehicle systems to manage operations, it may just be the start of things to come.

A video uploaded to YouTube last month highlights the dangers ahead. Houston thieves broke into a 2010 Jeep Wrangler, opened up a laptop, and after a few minutes drove the car away. Roger Morris, vice president of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said that it’s possible the thieves hacked the car to accept a different electronic key to the one it was previously paired with. Four other Houston cars may have been stolen with the same method.

“We have no idea how many cars have been broken into using this method,” Morris told the Wall Street Journal. “We think it is minuscule in the overall car thefts but it does show these hackers will do anything to stay one step ahead.”

As cars grow ever-more reliant on computers in their operations, it’s an issue that grows in importance. In June 2015, hackers were able to prove that it was possible to control a Jeep Cherokee from miles away, sparking fears about what these capabilities could do in the wrong hands.

The Canadian Military has taken matters into their own hands. In October 2015, it offered a cash prize to anyone that could break into its Jeep military vehicles and demonstrate the vulnerability to the authorities. These vehicles can have up to 100 computers on board, handling 25 gigabytes of data per hour. Security is crucial.

As future-facing tech firms set their sights on self-driving cars, it’s vital that car makers take a proactive stance against hackers. Car computers with even greater control over the vehicle operation could lead to a serious accident, or could make it even easier to drive a car away without ever visiting the crime scene.

Houston’s crime spree may be a sign of things to come in the world of car crime. “We think it is becoming the new way of stealing cars,” said Morris. “The public, law enforcement, and the manufacturers need to be aware.”