The most famous traffic light ‘hack’ in history is in the classic film, The Italian Job (1969), a caper movie where the heist involves paralyzing Turin via its traffic control system. The plan’s author, played by Michael Caine, says, “It’s a very difficult job and the only way to get through it is we all work together as a team. And that means you do everything I say.”
The reality, it turns out, is much easier – at least according to researchers at the University of Michigan, who say that networked traffic systems are left vulnerable by unencrypted radio signals and factory-default passwords, and that access to individual lights – or even a city-wide attack, as in the film, is possible, according to Time’s report.
“This paper shows that these types of systems often have safety in mind but may forget the importance of security,” the researchers write. Technology Review points out that Michigan’s system, which networks 100 lights, is far from unique. Similar systems are used in 40 states.
An attacker focused, like the film’s ‘crew’ on robbery could control a series of lights to give himself passage through intersections, and then turn them red to slow emergency vehicles in pursuit, according to the BBC’s report.
“Once the network is accessed at a single point, the attacker can send commands to any intersection on the network,” the researchers write.
“This means an adversary need only attack the weakest link in the system. The wireless connections are unencrypted and the radios use factory default user-names and passwords.”
Traffic light controllers also have known vulnerabilities, and attacks could paralyze cities: a traffic DDOS could, the researchers suggest, turn all lights to red, and cause “confusion” across a city.
“An attacker can also control lights for personal gain. Traffic lights could be changed to be green along the route the attacker is driving,” the researchers write.
“Since these attacks are remote, this could even be done automatically as she drove, with the traffic lights being reset to normal functionality after she passes through the intersection.”
“More maliciously, lights could be changed to red in coordination with another attack in order to cause traffic congestion and slow emergency vehicle response,” they write.They also suggest measures including encrypted signals and firewalls which could improve current systems.
Perhaps a film reboot is in order: after all, the 1969 version ends with Caine saying, “Hang on, lads; I’ve got a great idea.”
Author Rob Waugh, We Live Security