What if a car could be controlled from a computer halfway around the world? Computer security researcher and hacker Troy Hunt has managed to do just that, via a web browser and an Internet connection, with an unmodified Nissan Leaf in another country. While so far the control was limited to the HVAC system, it’s a revealing demonstration of what’s possible.

Hunt writes that his experiment started when an attendee at a developer security conference where Hunt was presenting realized that his car, a Nissan Leaf, could be accessed via the internet using Nissan’s phone app. Using the same methods as the app itself, any other Nissan Leaf could be controlled as well, from pretty much anywhere.

Hunt made contact with another security researcher and Leaf-owner, Scott Helme. Helme is based in the UK, and Hunt is based in Australia, so they arranged an experiment that would involve Hunt controlling Helme’s LEAF from halfway across the world. Here’s the video they produced of that experiment:

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As you can see, Hunt was able to access the Leaf in the UK, which wasn’t even on, and gather extensive data from the car’s computer about recent trips, distances of those trips (recorded, oddly, in yards) power usage information, charge state, and so on. He was also able to access the HVAC system to turn on the heater or A/C, and to turn on the heated seats.

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It makes sense these functions would be the most readily available, because those are essentially the set of things possible via Nissan’s Leaf mobile app, which people use to heat up or cool their cars before they get to them, remotely check on the state of charge, and so on.

This app is the key to how the Leaf can be accessed via the web, since that’s exactly what the app does. The original (and anonymous) researcher found that by making his computer a proxy between the app and the internet, the requests made from the app to Nissan’s servers can be seen. Here’s what a request looks like:

GET https://[redacted].com/orchestration_1111/gdc/BatteryStatusRecordsRequest.php?RegionCode=NE&lg=no-NO&DCMID=&VIN=SJNFAAZE0U60XXXXX&tz=Europe/Paris&TimeFrom=2014-09-27T09:15:21

If you look in that code, you can see that part of the request includes a tag for VIN, which is the Vehicle Identification Number (obfuscated here) of the car. Changing this VIN is really all you need to do to access any particular Leaf. Remember, VIN are visible through the windshield of every car, by law.

Hunt describes the process on his site, and notes some alarming details:

This is pretty self-explanatory if you read through the response; we’re seeing the battery status of his LEAF. But what got Jan’s attention is not that he could get the vehicle’s present status, but rather that the request his phone had issued didn’t appear to contain any identity data about his authenticated session.

In other words, he was accessing the API anonymously. It’s a GET request so there was nothing passed in the body nor was there anything like a bearer token in the request header. In fact, the only thing identifying his vehicle was the VIN which I’ve partially obfuscated in the URL above.

So, there’s no real security here to prevent accessing data on a LEAF, nor any attempt to verify the identity on either end of the connection.

And it gets worse. Here, quoting from Hunt’s site, he’s using the name “Jan” to refer to the anonymous Leaf-owning hacker who discovered this:

But then he tried turning it on and observed this request:

GET https://[redacted].com/orchestration_1111/gdc/ACRemoteRequest.php?RegionCode=NE&lg=no-NO&DCMID=&VIN=SJNFAAZE0U60XXXXX&tz=Europe/Paris

That request returned this response:

{

status:200

message: “success”,

userId: “******”,

vin: “SJNFAAZE0U60****”,

resultKey: “***************************”

}

This time, personal information about Jan was returned, namely his user ID which was a variation of his actual name. The VIN passed in the request also came back in the response and a result key was returned.

He then turned the climate control off and watched as the app issued this request:

GET https://[redacted].com/orchestration_1111/gdc/ACRemoteOffRequest.php?RegionCode=NE&lg=no-NO&DCMID=&VIN=SJNFAAZE0U60XXXXX&tz=Europe/Paris

All of these requests were made without an auth token of any kind; they were issued anonymously. Jan checked them by loading them up in Chrome as well and sure enough, the response was returned just fine. By now, it was pretty clear the API had absolutely zero access controls but the potential for invoking it under the identity of other vehicles wasn’t yet clear.

Even if you don’t understand the code, here’s what all that means: we have the ability to get personal data and control functions of the car from pretty much anywhere with a web connection, as long as you know the target car’s VIN.

Hunt proved this was possible after some work, using a tool to generate Leaf VINs (only the last 5 or 6 digits are actually different) and sending a request for battery status to those VINs. Soon, they got the proper response back. Hunt explains the significance:

This wasn’t Jan’s car; it was someone else’s LEAF. Our suspicion that the VIN was the only identifier required was confirmed and it became clear that there was a complete lack of auth on the service.

Of course it’s not just an issue related to retrieving vehicle status, remember the other APIs that can turn the climate control on or off. Anyone could potentially enumerate VINs and control the physical function of any vehicles that responded. That’s was a very serious issue. I reported it to Nissan the day after we discovered this (I wanted Jan to provide me with more information first), yet as of today – 32 days later – the issue remains unresolved. You can read the disclosure timeline further down but certainly there were many messages and a phone call over a period of more than four weeks and it’s only now that I’m disclosing publicly…

(Now, just to be clear, this is not a how-to guide to mess with someone’s Leaf. You’ll note that the crucial server address has been redacted, so you can’t just type in those little segments of code and expect things to work.)

While at the moment, you can only control some HVAC functions and get access to the car’s charge state and driving history, that’s actually more worrying than you may initially think.

Not only is there the huge privacy issue of having your comings-and-goings logged and available, but if someone wanted to, they could crank the AC and drain the battery of a Leaf without too much trouble, stranding the owner somewhere.

There’s no provision for remote starting or unlocking at this point, but the Leaf is a fully drive-by-wire vehicle. It’s no coincidence that every fully autonomous car I’ve been in that’s made by Nissan has been on the LEAF platform; all of its major controls can be accessed electronically. For example, the steering wheel can be controlled (and was controlled, as I saw when visiting Nissan’s test facility) by the motors used for power steering assist, and it’s throttle (well, for electrons)-by-wire, and so on.

So, at this moment I don’t think anyone’s Leaf is in any danger other than having a drained battery and an interior like a refrigerator, but that’s not to say nothing else will be figured out. This is a huge security breach that Nissan needs to address as soon as possible. (I reached out to Nissan for comment on this story and will update as soon as I get one.)

So far, Nissan has not fixed this after at least 32 days, Hunt said. Here’s how he summarized his contact with Nissan:

I made multiple attempts over more than a month to get Nissan to resolve this and it was only after the Canadian email and French forum posts came to light that I eventually advised them I’d be publishing this post. Here’s the timeline (dates are Australian Eastern Standard time):

  • 23 Jan: Full details of the findings sent and acknowledged by Nissan Information Security Threat Intelligence in the U.S.A.
  • 30 Jan: Phone call with Nissan to fully explain how the risk was discovered and the potential ramifications followed up by an email with further details
  • 12 Feb: Sent an email to ask about progress and offer further support to which I was advised “We’re making progress toward a solution”
  • 20 Feb: Sent details as provided by the Canadian owner (including a link to the discussion of the risk in the public forum) and advised I’d be publishing this blog post “later next week”
  • 24 Feb: This blog published, 4 weeks and 4 days after first disclosure
  • All in all, I sent ten emails (there was some to-and-fro) and had one phone call. This morning I did hear back with a request to wait “a few weeks” before publishing, but given the extensive online discussions in public forums and the more than one-month lead time there’d already been, I advised I’d be publishing later that night and have not heard back since. I also invited Nissan to make any comments they’d like to include in this post when I contacted them on 20 Feb or provide any feedback on why they might not consider this a risk. However, there was nothing to that effect when I heard back from them earlier today, but I’ll gladly add an update later on if they’d like to contribute.

    I do want to make it clear though that especially in the earlier discussions, Nissan handled this really well. It was easy to get in touch with the right people quickly and they made the time to talk and understand the issue. They were receptive and whilst I obviously would have liked to see this rectified quickly, compared to most ethical disclosure experiences security researches have, Nissan was exemplary.

    It’s great Nissan was “exemplary” but it would have been even better if they’d implemented at least some basic security before making their cars’ data and controls available over the internet.

    Security via obscurity just isn’t going to cut it anymore, as Troy Hunt has proven through his careful and methodical work. I’m not sure why carmakers don’t seem to be taking this sort of security seriously, but it’s time for them to step up.

    After all, doing so will save them from PR headaches like this, and the likely forthcoming stories your aunt will Facebook you about how the terrorists are going to make all the Leafs hunt us down like dogs.

    Until they have to recharge, at least.

    (Thanks, Matt and Brandon!)