Computer Scientists Hack Michigan Traffic Lights To Show Glaring Security Flaws

Three major weaknesses make traffic lights used in almost all U.S. states prone to attacks

Photo: Jens Haas/Corbis

You'd think that traffic lights would be impenetrable beacons of security. After all, since cars are Americans' transportation method of choice, breaking down our ability to drive efficiently—even for a little while—could make a serious mess. But according to computer scientists from the University of Michigan, it really wouldn't be that difficult to sabotage the nation's traffic lights.

With permission from the authorities, the Michigan team conducted an experiment to see whether or not they could hack into traffic light systems around Michigan. Not only did they succeed, MIT Technology News writes, but they reported that the task was exceptionally easy. 

According to the researchers, MIT continues, there were three major problems with the traffic lights: they operate over a wireless network that's unencrypted; they share common user names and passwords; and their debugging ports aren't especially challenging to mount an attack on. The researchers point out to MIT that this "systemic lack of security consciousness" leaves the shared traffic light systems in nearly all U.S. states exceptionally vulnerable should someone with a bit of computer savvy decide to mess with them. 

The researchers proposed a few simple fixes, but as they acknowledged to MIT, it's not certain that anything will actually be done to patch up the security risk. "It’s hard to get people to care about these things in the same way that it’s hard to get people to change their passwords," they say. 

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