A Safer Course for Cars

The media today is rife with news, and warnings, about cyber attacks. But most people don’t think about it happening to their vehicles. USA graduate student Paul Carsten didn’t either, until he learned about a graduate research project at South that got his wheels turning. Now he’s on his way to raising awareness of vehicle security issues, which could potentially save lives.

“It’s already happened,” says Carsten. “People have conducted experiments where they hacked into a car and took control of a moving vehicle.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in graphic design at Louisiana State University and working in that field a few years, Carsten decided to make a career change. He grew up in Mobile and was good with computers, so he looked into the computer science program at South.

“I saw some very impressive things going on here,” Carsten explains. “The head of the department at the time persuaded me to go to graduate school. They were very responsive. All the professors here are very willing to help.”

Carsten started in the graduate program in 2013 under the CyberCorps: Scholarship For Service federal program. He learned about the vehicle cyber security research project from his mentor, Dr. Todd Andel, and was instantly interested.

“It’s such a clear and realistic thing,” says Carsten. “When you find out the dangers that exist to vehicles and the things that can be attacked, the ramifications are very serious. So it felt like a very worthwhile endeavor.”

There are many ways vehicles are vulnerable, says Carsten, because all the systems in modern automobiles “talk” to each other. Last spring, he presented a paper at Oak Ridge National Laboratory on his research. This caught the attention of MITRE, a federally funded research and development center in Washington, D.C. They invited Carsten for a three-month summer internship researching vulnerabilities in vehicle networks, which he says was “an amazing experience.”

After he receives his master’s in computer science from South in May, Carsten will spend at least two years doing cyber security work for a government agency.

“Ideally, I'd like to continue my research with MITRE,” he says. “My experience at South has really opened my eyes and shown me a way to make a difference. With vehicles becoming more automated, the problem’s not going to go away. I want to heighten awareness of these security issues. And I’d like to make something that eventually leads to a solution.”

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