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How was Nissan's electric car vulnerable to hacking?

The world's best-selling electric car was revealed to have a flaw in the software behind an application connected to the vehicles that could have exposed the cars to certain controls by hackers.

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    A Nissan Leaf on display in Los Angeles in 2010.
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The world’s best-selling electric car was at risk of being hacked through a smartphone application linked to the vehicles, say security experts.

The Nissan Leaf, an all-electric hatchback that has sold more than 200,000 units since its launch in 2010, was found to be susceptible to manipulation via the automaker’s NissanConnect app. The program was also connected to some of Nissan’s electric e-NV200 vans, meaning they were at risk as well.

Noted Web security expert Troy Hunt spotted the flaw, along with attendee at a software conference in Norway where Mr. Hunt was running a workshop. Hunt detailed the pair’s exploration of NissanConnect’s weaknesses in a post on his website.

The app, which pairs its users with certain functions in their cars such as battery charging and climate control, is meant to allow Nissan owners to interact with their cars remotely. What Hunt and his anonymous collaborator discovered, though, was that access to Leaf functions through the app could be obtained by anyone with a valid Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), not just the owner of a specific car.

“Our suspicion that the VIN was the only identifier required was confirmed and it became clear that there was a complete lack of [authorization] on the service,” Hunt wrote in his breakdown of the process. While something like checking the battery level of a car or looking through its driving record may not sound especially threatening to Leaf owners, being able to turn on a Leaf’s air conditioning to drain its battery, or halting a charge in progress, could potentially leave drivers stranded at the hands of hackers.

“Anyone could potentially enumerate VINs and control the physical function of any vehicles that responded,” Hunt wrote. “[That] was a very serious issue.”

On Thursday, the carmaker announced that NissanConnect would be taken offline.

The NissanConnect EV app ... is currently unavailable,” Nissan said in a statement, according to the BBC. “This follows information from an independent IT consultant and a subsequent internal Nissan investigation that found the dedicated server for the app had an issue that enabled the temperature control and other telematics functions to be accessible via a non-secure route.”

The statement added that no “driving elements” of the Leaf or e-NV200 were at risk, and that “updated versions” of the company’s apps would be released soon. The BBC said that Nissan denied that the flaw posed a risk to anyone's safety.

“Disabling the service was the right thing to do given it appears it's not something they can properly secure in an expeditious fashion,” Hunt told the BBC. “Hopefully this will give them time to build a more robust solution that ensures vehicle features and driving history are only accessible via the authorised owner of the car.”

The rise of the implementation of wireless features and connectivity in cars, including more links to the Internet, has left drivers open to outside manipulation. One example is hackers’ ability to unlock cars wirelessly using radio signals, an old weak security link that still could affect drivers today. Other hackers have found loopholes allowing them to directly interfere with drivers using the Internet, even cutting vehicle’s controls and remotely carjacking them, although cars open to that issue were recalled.

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