This software wants to protect millions of cars from hackers

A cyberdefense system that protects phones, printers and routers could soon help keep cars safe.

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Connected cars add a new wrinkle to security worries for car owners.

Tim Stevens/CNET

Until a few years ago, the only real security worries for most car owners had to with someone hot-wiring the ignition or breaking a window to grab valuables off the back seat.

Now, as cars come with GPS systems, cameras, automatic brakes and computers packed in, drivers have to deal with cyberthreats. During the Defcon security conference in 2015, hackers showed off how they breached a Tesla Model S, unlocked the doors, started the car and drove away without ever touching the steering wheel.  

In 2016, thieves in Houston used a laptop to spoof key fobs to cars on the spot, stealing more than 30 cars that way. Last year, the FBI and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a warning that connected cars are becoming "increasingly vulnerable" to cyberattacks.

Those sorts of threats have become so prevalent that they factored into a major plot line in the latest Fast and Furious movie.

Researchers from Red Balloon Security are hoping to keep at least some of that as a Hollywood fantasy rather than a concern for everyday drivers.

On Wednesday, the company announced Symbiote for Automotive Defense at the Escar USA Conference in Detroit. Symbiote already exists as a cybersecurity add-on for connected devices, from smart fridges to connected coffee makers. Unlike other security options, The Symbiote software defends against malware in part by being installed in hardware embedded into a device.

Symbiote is compatible with all operating systems, so it will also be able to protect all car brands and types, according to the company. It expects that bringing cybersecurity to cars will be as easy as clicking a steering wheel lock into place.

Millions of connected devices around the world are using Symbiote for security, and the company has not yet had a recorded failure, Red Balloon Security said.

"As cars become more advanced in the years ahead, and this technology is more widely deployed across all vehicle models, drivers will face a growing set of risks from remote attacks." Ang Cui, CEO of Red Balloon Security, said in a statement.

Cui said the new cyberprotection for cars would be able to protect vehicles from ransomware, remote hijacking and zero-day attacks.

"We fully expect Symbiote for Automotive Defense to become ubiquitous in new automobiles," Cui said in an email. "First, millions, then hundreds of millions of vehicles."

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