Car hacking – Progressive Dongle exposes vehicles to attacks

A security researcher demonstrated that “car hacking” is reality through the exploitation of vulnerable Can Insurance Dongle. Million vehicles at risk.

Car hacking is a reality, we have discussed the topic several times and we have learned that modern vehicles have a complex internal networking infrastructure that could be subject to cyber attacks.

The news of the day is that devices used by a popular car insurance company to track vehicles could be exploited by hackers to take control of a car, the discovery was made by Cory Thuen, a security researcher at Digital Bond Labs. Thuen has shared the results of its study “Remote Control Automobiles”, during last S4x15 conference held each January in Miami.

This kind of devices is used by car insurance company to evaluate users’ driving habits in order to target the offer for them. Progressive is the name of the manufacturer of a dongle called Snapshot that plugs into the OBD-II diagnostic port that is present on almost every modern car. But has I explained in a past post on the car hacking, this port could be also the entry point for an attacker.

Thuen discovered several issues by reverse engineering the device firmware and testing the hardware on his Toyota Tundra. The dongle fails to authenticate to the cellular network and not encrypt its traffic, but most concerning aspect is that its source code is not signed allowing an ill-intentioned to modify or replace it.

In order to run a successful attack, a bad actor need to compromise also the u-blox modem, which is used to establish a connection between the Progressive servers and the dongle, but Thuen explained that is not a problem because such systems have been already exploited in the past.

“The firmware running on the dongle is minimal and insecure. It does no validation or signing of firmware updates, no secure boot, no cellular authentication, no secure communications or encryption, no data execution prevention or attack mitigation technologies… basically it uses no security technologies whatsoever.”  said Thuen.


The device runs on CANbus, the same “digital highway” used by many components to talk to each other, including the brake system, airbags and power steering. The direct access to CANBus could allow an attacker to control the various components of a car by sending specific commands.

The circumstance is alarming because potentially every car is exposed to the risk of a cyber attack. Thuen also explained that hackers could gain control over the vehicles by hacking the Progressive’s servers.

“I suspected that these dongles were built insecurely, and I was correct. The technology being used in them is outdated and vulnerable to attack which is highly troubling considering it is being used to remotely access insecure by design vehicle computers,” he said. “A skilled attacker could almost certainly compromise such dongles to gain remote control of a vehicle, or even an entire fleet of vehicles. Once compromised, the consequences range from privacy data loss to life and limb.

“Also, there is the attack vector of Progressive backend infrastructure. If those systems are compromised, an attacker would have control over the devices that make it out to the field. “In simple terms, we have seen that cars can be hacked and we have seen that cell comms can be hacked.” Thuen told to Forbes.

Despite Thuen had tried to disclose his research to Xirgo Technologies, the company that manufactures the tracking devices, he still hasn’t received any comment.

Progressive released the following statement to Forbes, last week:

“The safety of our customers is paramount to us. We are confident in the performance of our Snapshot device – use in more than two million vehicles since 2008 – and routinely monitor the security of our device to help ensure customer safety.”

“However, if an individual has credible evidence of a potential vulnerability related to our device, we would prefer that the person would first disclose that potential vulnerability to us so that we could evaluate it and, if necessary, correct it before the vulnerability could be exploited. While it’s unfortunate that Mr. Thuen didn’t share his findings with us privately in advance, we would welcome his confidential and detailed input so that we can properly evaluate his claims.”

If you are interested in car hacking topic, I suggest you the reading of the post titled “Car Hacking: You Cannot Have Safety without Security“, in which I collected the state of the art in this category of attacks, including the researchers made by the popular hackers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller.

Pierluigi Paganini

January 23, 2015

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