The next target for computer hackers may not be a big corporation or government agency but the typical family car sitting in a suburban driveway.

As cars sprout more sensors, more crash-avoidance systems and more internet connections, the under-the-hood computing power grows more powerful and, if designers are not careful, more vulnerable to hackers.

Everyone acknowledges that today's automobiles can't run without computers, but most people are not aware how complex the systems already are.

To put it into context, Grant Courville, Head of Product Management for QNX, a software company based in Ottawa, Ontario, compares a passenger jet to a typical car.

"In a Boeing 787, there are seven to ten million lines of computer code," Courville pointed out during a presentation in the QNX offices. "In the many cars today, there are easily 100 million lines of computer code."

QNX, a BlackBerry subsidiary, has been providing software platforms for automotive OEMs since 1998. GM's OnStar system runs on QNX software, as do the infotainment systems in 60 million vehicles worldwide.

The increasingly close connection between the automotive and information technology sectors creates a wealth of growth opportunities for the nearly 100 Ontario companies like QNX that are involved in the connected-car sector. In Ontario, the auto-IT overlap is a natural partnership. Ontario is one of the few jurisdictions anywhere with top-ranked clusters in both automotive production and high tech operating side-by-side.

"Auto manufacturers today need to regularly update the software for vehicles worldwide," Courville said. "We bring BlackBerry's expertise in connectivity to vehicles. BlackBerry has a global infrastructure in place and many years of experience in delivering software updates reliably and securely."

BlackBerry set the global gold standard for digital security with its elliptic curve cryptography (ECC), originally developed by Certicom, a BlackBerry subsidiary. Today Certicom encryption helps customers secure tens of millions of automotive telematics modules, smart meters, thermostats and smartphones.

In 2012, Certicom co-founder Dr. Scott Vanstone and Sherry Shannon-Vanstone launched TrustPoint Innovation Technologies in Waterloo, Ontario.

TrustPoint's goal is to apply ECC security to connected car technologies and, more broadly, the rapidly expanding Internet-of-Things (IoT) that includes everything connected to the internet, from leading-edge home heating systems to asset-tracking tags.

"ECC combines high levels of security with low battery usage and that makes it perfect for a wide range of IoT devices," said Shannon-Vanstone during a demonstration at TrustPoint's offices.

While IoT technologies offer a wealth of consumer benefits and business efficiencies, their web-like connections raise serious security issues. A system's security is only as strong as its weakest link. A security breach in one area can spread system-wide.

"Every data touch point is a point of vulnerability," Shannon-Vanstone said. "This is particularly troubling in light of a recent HP study that showed that 70 per cent of IoT devices have poor security."

For connected cars companies, the need for better security was driven home in July 2015. Hackers attacked a Jeep Cherokee that was driving on a highway just outside St. Louis, gaining control of the vehicle and killing the engine. Fortunately, the hackers were "white hat" researchers demonstrating the system's vulnerability.

The need for hack-proof security is becoming urgent. In a bid to increase road safety, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has mandated that, by 2020, all new vehicles will be able to communicate with each other. TrustPoint has been working with the DOT and eight OEMs for the past two years on connected-car security.

"We're now moving into proof-of-concept phase," Shannon-Vanstone reported. "Once the system is deployed, DOT studies estimate that the number of collisions can be reduced by 80%."

And that's a lot of lives saved.

February 18, 2016

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