Highway Safety Agency Wants Car Makers to Know What’s in Their Software

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The agency is seeking comment on a software-heavy update of its cybersecurity best practices.

A new draft of voluntary cybersecurity best practices released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration focused on secure software use has the support of industry and is expected to be widely adopted.

The updated draft, posted to the Federal Register Tuesday, incorporates comments from a 2016 best practices document the agency issued in recognition that greater connectivity, and electronics being incorporated in modern vehicles provides more opportunities for malicious hackers to compromise their safety. A car’s automatic emergency braking innovation, for example, could be remotely turned against its driver.  

NHTSA said the update reflects comments on the 2016 document, new industry standards, and the agency’s own research into “over-the-air” updates, encryption methods and cybersecurity penetration testing and diagnostics.

“Multiple commenters recommended greater and more formal consideration of cybersecurity as part of the software development lifecycle process,” the notice reads. “NHTSA’s revised best practice outlined today reflects a need to include cybersecurity considerations along the entire software supply chain and throughout the lifecycle management processes of developing, implementing and updating software-enabled systems.” Among other things, NHTSA specifically called for automakers to maintain a database of software components. 

The importance of a secure software development process has gotten a lot more attention in the wake of hackers leveraging an intrusion into IT management company SolarWinds building environment to gain unauthorized access to the networks of federal agencies and top tier private companies. 

Eyes turned to a software bill of materials, or SBOM, effort underway at the National Telecommunications Information Administration, which held a meeting of its public-private multistakeholder group Wednesday. 

Allan Friedman, NTIA’s director of cybersecurity initiatives runs the program. He said it’s important for people to realize an SBOM, in which product manufacturers would provide a list of the software components they use—akin to a list of ingredients in food—“won’t magically solve everything.” Still, it’s an essential building block, he said—indeed some less mature organizations may not even know what third-party software they might be consuming—and promoted a number of proof of concept initiatives occurring across various industries. 

One of those is in the automotive sector. Charlie Hart, senior vice president of engineering at Hitachi, which provides high-tech automotive systems, praised the NHTSA update during the NTIA meeting.

“Lest you think NHTSA is shilling for the automotive SBOM project, that is not the case. We’ve worked on it for about 18 months and we’re very very pleased that this has become important to NHTSA,” he said. 

Hart said the SBOM proof-of-concept effort within the automotive industry not only has the support of the suppliers, but rather those organizations are at the front of it, hoping to avoid having to reproduce different types of SBOMs for various manufacturers. A standardized approach to the best practices outlined by NHTSA benefits them.

“One of the most important things about it is it's a supplier-led project,” he said. “It's primarily to ensure that we have an orderly and secure supply chain in the automotive industry across all the suppliers, which is a very complex set of parties, working together. One of the most important side effects of this will be that the automakers will ask for the same information from all of their suppliers, and this, of course, short circuits the need for anybody to go off and do a custom set of SBOM standards for any given supplier or any given automaker.”

NHTSA noted that although the 2020 best practices are voluntary, it expects that many entities will conform their practices to the agency’s recommendations. 

“Entities that do not implement appropriate cybersecurity measures, like those guided by these recommendations, or other sound controls, face a higher risk of cyberattack or increased exposure in the event of a cyberattack, potentially leading to safety concerns for the public,” the notice reads. 

Public comments are due within 60 days of the document’s publication in the Federal Register.

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