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Ahhh, computers. They make life wonderful in some ways (you wouldn't be reading our blog without one). But, in other ways, they can be frustrating to say the least. And nothing's worse than getting a computer virus; you could lose all your photos, or possibly your computer.
Maybe your car, too ... at least in a not-so-distant future.
Yes, as computers are getting more integrated into cars, they're also being put at risk for malware. But what's the real risk? And should you be worried?
First, we should explain what we mean by “malware.” Malware is, as the name implies, software that makes your computer do something that it shouldn't. For example, all that spam you get in your email comes from computers that have been infected by a piece of malware, and networked with other computers, called botnets. Most users aren't even aware their computer is doing this; a well-designed virus is invisible until it strikes.
Hackers are already working on computerized attacks on cars. “White hats,” hackers who attack systems in order to find vulnerabilities and then fix them, have found several flaws that can be exploited; they start cars remotely, unlock your doors, monitor your calls, and disrupt your navigation. This has mostly been done in academic settings, and sometimes even with the participation of car makers, but there have been a few real-world demonstrations, and car thieves have even used a few tricks to try and steal cars.
So what do you do to protect your car? First of all, you probably aren't even at risk ... yet. Your car's computerized systems, like the fuel system, are generally only accessible by specially trained technicians. They aren’t even connected to the Internet, so they’re unlikely to get a virus. The mechanic has to use a specialized interface to access those systems, so they're not in any danger of being compromised or monitored.
Even if your car is potentially at risk, though, no viruses designed specifically for cars have been found in the field. Keep in mind that most malicious hackers are either programmers looking for bragging rights by attacking and defeating incredibly complex systems, like the private networks of large corporations, or professional criminals looking for money by perpetrating fraud or directly stealing. Your car simply isn't a target for them right now, unless you either keep a lot of money in it, or are intent on ticking them off.
This means that any “antivirus” software for your car is a long way away. (Although, we could see antivirus software someday reducing your car insurance rates). Such software scans your computer for viruses that have previously been discovered and analyzed, and looks for common actions by viruses it doesn't know about, such as surreptitiously attempting to contact a specific website without opening a browser. In fact, many expect that malware in cars will be less about mischief and more about espionage, like listening to any hands-free calls coming from a particular car, or learning exactly where a car goes by hacking into its GPS.
In short, even when it becomes a problem, it's unlikely to be anything you'll have to worry about. That’s unless you're a globe-trotting spy ... but then you're probably already worried about, anyway.