Hacking a traffic lights is frighteningly simple

A new study from the University of Michigan reveals just how vulnerable our infrastructure really is

Topics: the daily dot, Traffic Lights, Hacking, technology, University of Michigan, ,

Hacking a traffic lights is frighteningly simple
This article originally appeared on The Daily Dot.

The Daily Dot It has long been a dream of drivers the world over to make traffic lights instantly flip from red to green with the push of a button. A study published this month by computer scientists at the University of Michigan found that not only is hacking traffic signals to do your bidding possible, but it’s actually shockingly easy.

First getting permission from local authorities, the researchers used little more than wireless-enabled laptops to remotely hack into the network controlling the traffic lights in an unnamed Michigan city. ‟Our attacks show that an adversary can control traffic infrastructure to cause disruption, degrade safety, or gain an unfair advantage,” the paper’s authors explained.

When automatic traffic signals were first rolled out in the United States in the late 1800s, they operated mechanically as stand-alone units. However, as time wore on and technology advanced, most traffic signals evolved into computers, often connected to a larger network of other traffic lights through wireless technology and running through a central server. While these advances allow traffic signals to coordinate with each other more efficiently, it also opens those systems up to attack by hackers who no longer need to open up the physical devices in order to change their behavior.

Using computers that could communicate at the same frequency as the traffic signals, the team was able to intercept communications on the network and execute fraudulent commands across the entire system.

You Might Also Like

The researchers found that the system wasn’t particularly secure. Not only were the wireless communications between the traffic signals and the central server being sent unencrypted, but the passwords on the devices were set to their factory defaults—meaning anyone able to download a copy of the user’s manual off the Internet could crack them by simply turning to the right page.

‟The vulnerabilities we discover in the infrastructure are not a fault of any one device or design choice,” the study noted, ‟but rather show a systemic lack of security consciousness.”

The study posits that hackers could mount a whole range of attacks on traffic light systems. The authors speculate about denial of service attacks that could stop all lights from operating normally; traffic congestion attacks that subtly throw off the timing a light relative to its neighbors as to increase congestion without a high risk of detection; and light control attacks, where someone could ensure he or she only hits green lights wherever they happen to be driving.

The authors added that, even though traffic light systems around the country differ in their specific implementations, they don’t believe that others are necessarily significantly more secure than the one they were able to easily hack into. Vox notes that an estimated 62 percent of traffic lights in the United States are networked in a similar manner.

This study isn’t the first time someone has addressed insecurity of of traffic lights. Earlier this year, an Argentinian security researcher with IoActive presented similar discussion at at cybersecurity conference in Florida showing how someone could build a device for hacking traffic lights for under $100.

Additionally, at least one enterprising hacker has produced a step-by-step guide for building your own specialized controller for hacking traffic lights from the comfort of your own home.

The authors of the University of Michigan study charge that the problem of paying insufficient attention to cybersecurity concerns is endemic across the entire traffic signal industry. They conclude:

A clear example can be seen in the response of the traffic controller vendor to our vulnerability disclosure. It stated that the company, “has followed the accepted industry standard and it is that standard which does not include security.” The industry as a whole needs to understand the importance of security, and the standards it follows should be updated to reflect this. Security must be engineered into these devices from the start rather than bolted on later. Until these systems are designed with security as a priority, the security of the entire traffic infrastructure will remain at serious risk.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...