Here’s a new excuse for not getting to work on time on a Monday morning: My car caught a virus.

Car industry officials and analysts say hackers’ growing interest in writing viruses for wireless devices puts auto computer systems at risk of infection.

As carmakers adjust on-board computers to allow consumers to transfer information with MP3 players and mobile phones, they also make their vehicles vulnerable to mobile viruses that jump between devices via the Bluetooth technology that connects them.
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“I’m afraid there is a risk in using a Bluetooth connection in cars,” said Yevgeni Kaspersky, head of antivirus research at closely held Russian firm Kaspersky Lab.

“If the smart phones and on-board computers have the same channel to transfer the data … sooner or later the hackers will find the vulnerability in the operating systems of on-board computers and … will definitely use it,” he added.

The worst that could happen is that the computer’s control of engine performance and emissions, navigation and entertainment systems cease to function. That would probably mean an annoying trip to the repair shop or having to reboot the system.

“I am very sure that you will be still able to drive your car on your own,” said Symantec Corp’s mobile virus specialist Guido Sanchidrian.

Companies so far have seen no reports of viruses in auto systems, and studies have shown it is not easy to transplant a virus into a car, but carmakers say they are taking the risk seriously.

The first mobile phone virus, Cabir, has spread to over 20 countries, ranging from the United States to Japan and from Finland to South Africa, using only Bluetooth. Bluetooth is used in car electronics interfaces for monitoring and service.

Car makers serious

Carmakers say they use the most sophisticated protection for safety equipment such as airbags or motor controls, whereas infotainment systems so far have less stringent safeguards.

Even though they are unaware of any cases so far, companies say they are keeping a close eye on wireless virus developments. “In principle it is possible to plant something (a virus), and we have been working for many years to resolve the problem,” said a spokesman for German carmaker BMW.

German automotive supplier Siemens VDO and many other companies use systems that feature encryption to screen out unwanted programs and data, it said. “If something like a virus comes along that should not be there, then an error message pops up or it is simply not accepted,” said a spokeswoman for Siemens VDO.

She said studies have shown that, “You can’t just send a virus and have the whole thing crash.”

Finnish antivirus firm F-secure tried early mobile viruses on a Toyota Prius earlier this year but was not able to harm it.

As carmakers turn to computer security, a lucrative market could open for antivirus firms, which have been touting cell phone security for years without notable success. “People will not use the protection before there are several big epidemics. After that they will understand that it is dangerous to use phones to get online, that you need to be protected,” Kaspersky said.

Research firm IDC says the market for mobile security software will grow to $993 million in 2008 from $70 million in 2003, a rise of 70 percent annually on average. “The market is still in the beginning. The threat landscape is not there yet like it is in Windows,” said Symantec’s Sanchidrian.

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