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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Recent reports have revealed that two remote GPS tracker and immobilizer products for vehicles, known as remote kill switches, are vulnerable to attack due to guessable default passwords.

The big picture: Remote kill switches were designed to prevent theft, but can be compromised and used to steal or hijack cars, target high-profile individuals in their private vehicles, or shut down roadways through mass immobilization. The more complex a connected car’s systems are, the more potential points of vulnerability it has, making the stakes especially high for AVs.

How it works: Remote immobilizers allow an owner to shut off a car's engine by using an app to access the car's CAN bus, the central communication network that controls everything from vehicles cameras to the accelerator.

  • Security researchers have examined only a few GPS trackers and security systems, but most on the market share the same design, and the same potential to give adversaries virtually unfettered access to the engine, brakes and steering.

Between the lines: Vulnerabilities can exacerbate the problems these systems were designed to solve, exposing vehicle owners, passengers and others on the road to new dangers.

  • While the increased capabilities of AVs promise enormous benefits, adversaries could also benefit if vehicles — and the technologies that remotely support them — are not secured.
  • Attackers could target not just a single car but potentially all vehicles in a defined area, according to research from Georgia Tech. Simultaneously activating kill switches on millions of cars could trigger chaos, shutting down traffic and choking off deliveries of food, gas and other essential resources.

What's needed: Among the most promising solutions are adversarial resilience modeling, which helps avoid foreseeable issues such as weak default passwords, and secure software updates that fix issues as companies detect them.

  • I Am The Cavalry, a global grassroots initiative of cybersecurity researchers, advocates for both approaches in a cyber safety framework that could inform future car designs.

What to watch: The U.S. government has taken only baby steps on AV cybersecurity, but could accelerate its leadership by helping to standardize privacy-preserving “black box” data recorders and updating laws whose requirements may inadvertently deter automakers from adopting more securable technologies.

Beau Woods is a cyber safety innovation fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Go deeper

Venezuela suspends talks with opposition after Maduro ally extradited to U.S.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, in June. Photo: Gaby Oraa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key ally of Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro was extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. Saturday to face money laundering charges in Florida, Bloomberg first reported.

Why it matters: Venezuela's government called off negotiations with opposition officials that were scheduled for Sunday in Mexico in response to the extradition of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for Maduro.

4 hours ago - Health

5 times as many police officers have died from COVID as from guns since pandemic began

Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

COVID-19 is the leading cause of death for police officers even though members of law enforcement were among the first to be eligible to receive the vaccine, CNN reports, citing data from the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Why it matters: Nearly 476 police officers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started, compared to the 93 deaths as a result of gunfire in the same time period, according to ODMP and CNN.

Virginia energy giant quietly boosts McAuliffe

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks during a campaign rally on Oct. 15 in Henrico, Virginia. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe has sworn off money from the Richmond company Dominion Energy. But the utility has found more subtle ways to back McAuliffe's gubernatorial bid, records show.

Driving the news: Dominion's political action committee has donated $200,000 to a murky political group called Accountability Virginia PAC, a group with ties to prominent Democrats that's been running ads attacking Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin from the right.