Real Life Watchdogs Scenario: Hacking traffic lights in Vegas

Earlier this year, a game called 'Watchdogs' was released for Playstation 3, PC, and Xbox 360. At the center of this game's concept was that normal people could harness the power of technology to manipulate weaknesses within computer systems. Notably, the game depicts the protagonist hacking into, and altering traffic light signals in the city of Chicago, IL.

At this year's hacker conference in Las Vegas, DefCon, a group of European hackers replicated exactly this activity: they had found that the system to change traffic lights sent all its information completely clean and un-encrypted. Now, in the hacking community (especially one as large as the DefCon network) this is potentially a terrible thing: if such vulnerabilities are common among the systems used in metropolitan cities then anybody with some transmission equipment and a little knowledge of software could have total control over the systems managing infrastructure in a city. DefCon itself is essentially a network of hackers, dedicated to pioneering new skills, teaching people with an interest in hacking, and finding security flaws to exploit in websites and systems across the globe.

The clever hacker behind this stunt, "Cesar Cerrudo" a CTO at IOActive Labs, has said "I'm just pointing out the problem, I'm not creating it" - which is entirely correct, in that he made no effort to breach the security of the Las Vegas traffic control's systems, but instead made them aware of the problem so it may be fixed more quickly. It is notable that Cerrudo has also published the hacking technique publicly, perhaps in a move to drive cities across the world to be more diligent in the face of such simple, yet pivotal system security.

This display is reminiscent of the 'SHODAN' search engine, which, rather than aggressively trying to punch holes in security systems and encryptions, simply takes advantage of existing flaws within the systems in place.

The people of DefCon are of the opinion that the way to make the world's systems safer is to expose potential flaws and threats before they can be exploited with harmful intentions. Hence, this somewhat ostentatious hack attack by the hackers of DefCon is less an boasting show of force, but more a white hat hacker's way of telling Las Vegas city management to tighten up their security on basic, but fundamental systems in the city.

Source: BBC | Image Credit: Fox5Vegas

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My understanding of modern traffic signals is that they have physical movement inside of the box located at the intersection which will not allow for both sides to go green at the same time.

Anyone else more actually ever work on these things have any input?

All this stuff makes you feel pretty fly if you can execute it. Only problem is it takes a while to set up equipment and to set up a program to key into the systems at work. If I had the knowledge I'd try to make an app or something to change signals: would be slick.

...---... used to work on pedestrian crosswalk buttons in San Francisco if you wanted to change the light so that you could cross the street right away. Not sure if it works any longer, but that was a cool hack for a while. Used it whenever I was walking downtown during conferences.

TsarNikky said,
The next step will be hacking car computer controls.

That's already been demonstrated, although not for hacking the actual steering equipment yet.

But apparently in some cars it isn't difficult to imitate the transmission of the tire pressure sensors and display arbitrary messages to the driver. Would be an interesting feature of an advertising billboard to simultaneously broadcast messages to driver's consoles.