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U of M researchers find traffic lights can be hacked

Have you ever watched a movie where a snarky young computer hacker wreaks havoc with civic infrastructure, and wondered if it could happen in real life?

Well, a team of researchers researchers from the University of Michigan had that same question. So they looked into a scenario like this one, featured in the remake of The Italian Job:

"Was that really possible?” said Branden Ghena, who was on the research team. “Could you actually change the light colors? Is that a thing that can really happen, or are these systems as secure as we hoped they were?"

Turns out, the answer is yes – it really can happen.

“The first thing we discovered was these radios didn’t have any encryption on them,” said Ghena. “And they all had default passwords as well.”

Road agencies use the radios to transmit information to the traffic controller (that’s the hardware that sits in those metal boxes on the ground near an intersection), and to network with other signals down the road. So if a hacker could manipulate one signal, they could also affect other signals.

The team found safety overrides to prevent the Italian Job scenario – green lights in all directions. But they found vulnerabilities like unencrypted wireless networks, and hackable traffic controllers – that could allow hackers to snarl traffic. Say, with all flashing red lights.

“They could cause a lot of congestion, a lot of backup,” said Ghena. “Moreover, they could do the other movie thing which is turn all the lights green in their direction. So you’ve got a straight path through.”

Ed Skoudis is with Counter Hack, which trains government agencies and the military on improving cyber-security. He says he's not surprised by the U of M team's findings.

Skoudis says it should raise alarms about the security of other systems.

“I mean, it's an important story in itself. But it's kind of a toe in the door of this bigger issue of all kinds of computer systems – the whole infrastructure of modern cities is controlled by computer networks."

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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