Attackers are able to track smart cars at a very low cost and with a high degree of accuracy, a new study found.

By installing two WiFi sniffing stations on the campus of the University of Twente, it was possible to track a test smart car, said Jonathan Petit, researcher at the university and principal scientist at Security Innovation.

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These two WiFi sniffers ended up built around the new V2X technology that allows smart cars to talk to each other or send data to equipment or systems on the side of the road.

This technology is in the process of integrating into a series of upcoming car models and is the automotive industry’s attempt at creating a smart computer network that will allow cars, drivers, and authorities to detect the position of other vehicles to avoid crashes, traffic jams, or stolen vehicles.

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V2X works by broadcasting messages ten times per second from each car, using the 5.9 GHz portion of the WiFi spectrum (802.11p). The goal of these messages were to remain anonymous and not share any details about the car, like license plate, model, make, speed, position, and driver details.

Petit said even if they don’t reveal personally identifiable information, these messages do have a digital signature that is unique to each car, which his WiFi system was able to track.

His experiment consisted of installing two WiFi sniffers in two intersections on the Twente University campus and putting a V2X transmitter inside a regular test car.

After a period of 16 days and after these 2 receivers collected only 3 percent of the V2X broadcasted messages (40,000 out of 2.7 million packets), it found 78 percent of the time Petit was able to point out where the car was located on campus.

Petit also said by increasing the number of WiFi sniffers, accuracy will also go up. In addition, he said, even if a WiFi sniffing station currently costs around $550, he said attackers could easily create their very own kits using basic (cheap) components like a Raspberry Pi chipset, battery, WiFi radio, and a simple SIM card.

This means these tracking stations can fit inside very small spaces, and dropped inside intersections without anyone ever noticing their presence and real purpose.

As a countermeasure, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and European authorities proposed V2X emitters use pseudonyms when signing the broadcasted messages, which should end up changed every five minutes.

Petit said this may deter some attackers, but adding 50 percent more WiFi sniffers to their network should allow them to bring accuracy back up at acceptable, usable levels.

This allows anyone with particular interests in this field to track smart cars equipped with V2X transmitters.

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