In the 1969 classic The Italian Job, Michael Caine and crew commit a major gold heist by hacking into the traffic light system of Turin, Italy, to cause a massive traffic jam, giving the robbers a perfectly synced path to escape through the gridlock.
As it turns out, this piece of high-action Hollywood theatrics is not merely screenwriter fantasy. According to cyber security researchers at the University of Michigan, pulling off a caper like that wouldn’t even be difficult today.
“Our attacks show that an adversary can control traffic infrastructure to cause disruption, degrade safety, or gain an unfair advantage,” writes the research team led by computer scientist J. Alex Halderman.
“With the appropriate hardware and a little effort, [a hacker] can execute a denial of service attack to cripple the ﬂow of trafﬁc in a city, cause congestion at intersections by modifying light timings, or even take control of the lights and give herself clear passage through intersections,” according to the researchers’ findings.
The Michigan team identified three main weaknesses in traffic control systems in the U.S.: use of unencrypted wireless communication signals, default usernames and passwords, and the use of a traffic controller—the machine that interprets sensor data and controls lights and walk signs, etc.—that is vulnerable to known hacks.
Traffic signals that were at first use isolated machines have evolved into the interconnected systems we have today, which facilitates big improvements in traffic flow and safety. Unfortunately, it also leaves traffic control systems vulnerable to a system-wide attack that would have been impossible in a pre-computerized era.
Researchers also identified some relatively easy fixes for the vulnerabilities they found, but added that “the real problem is not any individual vulnerability, but a lack of security consciousness in the field.”
Here’s a clip of the traffic hack scene from the 2003 remake of The Italian Job. Computers really have come a long way.