It gets worse. At last month's Def Con, an annual convention for hackers, Miller and his co-researcher Chris Valasek showed a packed audience how they could drive a brand-new Prius using a Nintendo video game controller from the 1980s. They did it by plugging a laptop into the car's On-board Diagnostics (OBD) jack, which mechanics use to diagnose mechanical problems. Experts believe that soon it will be possible to accomplish this by way of a wireless hack.
How did the car companies react to this new and terrifying threat? With the same studied nonchalance that some exhibited decades ago when they continued to manufacture and sell vehicles that exploded into fireballs upon impact. Both companies told NPR they believe their cars are safe despite the federal government's own research to the contrary.
"I've actually been very disappointed with the reaction from these companies," Bailey said.
Well Don, you're not alone. In the face of tens of thousands of successful cyber intrusions, we can no longer underestimate the sophistication or creativity of folks who want to exploit us or simply demonstrate that they do what they do because they can.
It took some enterprising thieves just two years to convert research from a few highly sophisticated Swiss scientists into a handheld device they can use to prowl the streets of Chicago and pop the locks of any car of interest. How long before hackers pull the same trick with a video game controller, taking full control of our cars while we're behind the wheel? Two years? Three? Then what? There are those who will do it to scare people, or possibly even kill someone. Others might use it to blackmail unsuspecting victims. Sure, they'll return control of your car, after they've propelled you down some highway or winding road at breakneck speed, and only after you've given them access to your bank account. (Go ahead and use your phone to send them the information, since you won't be using your hands to drive anyway.)
While this sounds like science fiction, the fact is the technology exists. The potential for damage is real. The time to tackle this is now. Automobile manufacturers have an opportunity to get out ahead of the next crime wave, protect consumers and show other industries how to do computer security correctly. If they fail to seize the day, they could be the recipients of press headlines far more toxic to their reputations and their bottom lines than a Labor Day weekend of price gouging at gas stations.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.