Senate bill would secure the ‘internet of things,’ from cars to fridges


A bipartisan group of U.S. senators on Tuesday is introducing legislation to address vulnerabilities in computing devices embedded in everyday objects — known in the tech industry as the “internet of things” — which experts have long warned poses a threat to global cybersecurity and which has made several recent hacking events all too easy.

Reports of thieves using laptops to steal cars have persisted for years, and white-hat research into hacking cars goes back at least to a 2010 study at the University of Washington. The biggest real-world example surfaced last year when a pair of hackers in Houston were accused of using FCA software on a laptop to steal vehicles, mostly Jeeps, that were spirited away across the Mexican border. Possibly 100 vehicles were stolen this way.

Nissan had to suspend its Leaf smartphone app for a time, as did GM with its OnStar app, which got some notoriety when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) used the app to hack a Chevy Impala for 60 MInutes.

In 2015, cybersecurity researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller accessed critical vehicle controls on a 2014 Jeep Cherokee via the infotainment system. This allowed the pair, without physical access to the vehicle, to remotely disable the brakes, turn the radio volume up, engage the windshield wipers, and tamper with the transmission, measure its speed and track its location. The hack prompted Fiat Chrysler to recall 1.4 million vehicles.

Security researchers say the ballooning array of online devices including vehicles, household appliances, and medical equipment are not adequately protected from hackers. A 2016 cyberattack was facilitated when hackers conscripted the “internet of things” into a “zombie army” of devices that flooded servers with web traffic in what’s known as a “distributed denial of service.”

The new bill would require vendors who provide internet-connected equipment to the U.S. government to ensure their products are patchable and conform to industry security standards. It would also prohibit vendors from supplying devices that have unchangeable passwords or possess known security vulnerabilities.

Republicans Cory Gardner and Steve Daines and Democrats Mark Warner and Ron Wyden are sponsoring the legislation, which was drafted with input from technology experts at the Atlantic Council and Harvard University. A Senate aide who helped write the bill said that companion legislation in the House was expected soon.

“We’re trying to take the lightest touch possible,” Warner said. He added that the legislation was intended to remedy an “obvious market failure” that has left device manufacturers with little incentive to build with security in mind.

The legislation would allow federal agencies to ask the U.S. Office of Management and Budget for permission to buy some non-compliant devices if other controls, such as network segmentation, are in place.

It would also expand legal protections for cyber researchers working in “good faith” to hack equipment to find vulnerabilities so manufacturers can patch previously unknown flaws.

Between 20 billion and 30 billion devices are expected to be connected to the internet by 2020, researchers estimate, with a large percentage of them insecure.

Though security for the internet of things has been a known problem for years, some manufacturers say they are not well equipped to produce cyber secure devices.

Hundreds of thousands of insecure webcams, digital records and other everyday devices were hijacked last October to support a major attack on internet infrastructure that temporarily knocked some web services offline, including Twitter, PayPal and Spotify.

The new legislation includes “reasonable security recommendations” that would be important to improve protection of federal government networks, said Ray O’Farrell, chief technology officer at cloud computing firm VMware.

Reporting by Dustin Volz. Background information from Autoblog was included.


Falling gas prices could spur new federal taxes

If you’re a commuter, you probably love gas prices right now. A January 12 report from AAA cited the national average for a gallon of fuel at $2.13. Today, it’s $2.085, with the current plunge marking the longest period of consecutive daily drops since May of 2009 –109 days and counting, according to AAA. That means more money in the pockets of consumers. And it’s because of these facts that the Republican-controlled Congress is taking another look at the federal gas tax.

America’s roads and bridges are crumbling, thanks in no small part to the gas tax (or a lack thereof, say critics). Upkeep for American transportation infrastructure is provided in large part by the Highway Trust Fund, which relies on gas and diesel taxes for its funding. But the Fund is running dry. According to CNBC, the fund will be short $160 billion over the next ten years. This is partially down to Americans buying more and more fuel-efficient vehicles. Beyond that, though, the 18.4-cent-per-gallon tax hasn’t kept pace with inflation, as it’s been unchanged since 1993.

Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, and Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut (hooray for bipartisanship!) are pushing for the tax to increase 12 cents over the course of two years. This is not the first time this pair has been in the news for a gas tax hike, although their reasoning behind such a move has remained consistent.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, 18.4 cents in 1993 has the buying power of 30 cents in 2014; so really, the new tax rate doesn’t represent much of an increase at all. Beyond that, the tax would be indexed to inflation using the CPI to maintain the tax’s buying power. Overall, this latest proposal remains lower than previous attempts at an increase.

“What we floated is obvious. There is not enough money coming in,” Sen. Corker told CNBC.

“For too long, Congress has shied away from taking serious action to update our country’s aging infrastructure,” said Sen. Murphy said in a statement on Sen. Corker’s website. “We’re currently facing a transportation crisis that will only get worse if we don’t take bold action to fund the Highway Trust Fund.

The proposal even has some proponents on the right side of the aisle, including Sen. John Thune, R-SD and Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-OK. Thune heads the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee and Inhofe chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee. Not all Republicans are on board with Corker and Murphy’s plan, however, including Speaker of the House John Boehner.

That’s despite the fact that the Corker/Murphy plan makes significant concessions to fiscal conservatives. According to CNBC, if the gas tax increase goes through, there could be other tax decreases equivalent to the added income of the increased gas tax.

What are your thoughts? With fuel prices at extreme lows, is now the time to increase taxes to maintain road funding? Should Congress be looking at another method of funding infrastructure maintenance and improvement? Take a look below for a news report on the increase, and then head into Comments and let us know what you think.

Congress may change, or even repeal, 2007 ethanol mandate



The battle over selling a higher ethanol blend of gasoline in light-duty vehicle fuel is back in the headlines, as some members of Congress are now suggesting an overhaul of the 2007 ethanol mandate, the Detroit News says.

Some Congresspeople are arguing that the ethanol mandate needs to be adjusted to account for the fact that Americans are using less fuel. They’re using less fuel thanks to general improvements to fleetwide fuel economy. Meanwhile, Adam Sieminksi, who heads the US Energy Information Administration, says the US won’t “come close” to meeting renewable fuel production goals set for 2022. Federal ethanol-use targets for 2013 are almost three times higher than 2007 figures and are earmarked to double within the next decade.

Earlier this week, the US Supreme Court struck down an effort to block public sales of gasoline with a 15-percent ethanol blend (i.e., E15). The American Petroleum Institute (API) has been leading a number of groups, including AAA, to argue that ethanol’s higher alcohol content causes engine damage. Those arguments got louder last year when the US Environmental Protection Agency started allowing public sales of E15. In the US today, most standard gasoline is blended with a 10-percent ethanol mix.

An API representative told the AP, “The ever increasing ethanol mandate has become unsustainable, causing a looming crisis for gasoline consumers. We’re at the point where refiners are being pressured to put unsafe levels of ethanol in gasoline, which could damage vehicles, harm consumers and wreak havoc on our economy.” So you can see why Congress might be taking action.

[Source: Autoblog]

Senate OKs mandatory black boxes in cars for 2015, House expected to follow

It’s been working its way through Congress for years, but according to Car and Driver, an event recorder mandate could soon become law. The Senate has already voted to adopt a transportation bill that would make the so-called “black boxes” mandatory by the 2015 model year. According to the report, the House of Representatives is also expected to pass a similar statute.

While the specifics of the bills are “vague” – to use C/D‘s words – they’re also likely to change before becoming law. What probably won’t, according to the report, is the standard data set that the Department of Transportation has set forth, 15 measurements that include direction of acceleration, throttle position, and time that the airbags fired, among others.
This raises the specter of government snooping, of course.

The Senate version at least specifies that the data contained in the little electronic box is actually owned by the owner of the vehicle, according to the report. Johnny Law can still come around with a warrant to gain access to it, however, and first responders and paramedics would be able to do so without the warrant, provided they needed the information to respond to the emergency.

Auto Bailout by Wednesday? Maybe!

Congress, torn between trying to run a country, save Wall Street and the banking industry, has had their hands full. In the midst of all that it appears they are close to agreeing on short term loan condtions for the auto industry. Here are the basics:

The Core:

Provide emergency loans to GM and Chrysler

Create a presidentially named “car czar.”

Supervise a broad industry restructuring

Read the entire article below.

Top Senate Democrat sees auto bailout by Wednesday

By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – Congress and the White House pushed to clear the final obstacles to a $15 billion bailout of the auto industry on Tuesday, seeking agreement by day’s end followed by swift passage.

The unresolved issues included the precise extent of the authority to be given to a powerful new auto czar named by President George W. Bush, according to congressional aides, although it was clear the companies could be forced to return any aid if they did not use the money to ensure their long-term survival.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman, privately briefed House Democrats on the emerging deal Tuesday and told reporters afterward that he expected to seal it by day’s end.

“The room was pretty supportive” of the developing bill, Frank said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he hoped for a vote by Wednesday, but would keep the Senate in session through the weekend if necessary to complete work on the bailout. Democrats and White House officials traded legislative proposals behind the scenes, closing in on agreement.

The core of the bill – and its aim – was not in dispute. It would provide emergency loans to two of Detroit’s Big Three auto makers – Ford Motor Co. has said it doesn’t need an immediate cash transfusion – and create a presidentially named “car czar.” The federal overseer would supervise a broad industry restructuring and would be empowered to yank the money back if the carmakers weren’t doing enough to ensure their own survival.

The fast-paced developments come amid an environment of general economic instability, the Congress and the presidency both in transition, a ricocheting Wall Street and the Federal Reserve Board, Treasury and other agencies fighting to steady the reeling financial industry.

A final deal hinged on only a couple of outstanding issues, Reid, D-Nev., said.

“We would hope that we could complete work on this Detroit situation tonight or tomorrow,” he said on the Senate floor.

Still, the few differences remaining were significant. The White House and congressional Republicans were demanding tougher consequences for carmakers that couldn’t prove to the government they were viable, including a requirement – rather than an option – for them to be cut off from federal aid.

Republicans also were demanding that Democrats scrap a requirement that car companies getting loans drop their lawsuits against states that impose tougher emissions standards than the federal rules.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he was concerned that Democrats were proposing a package that “fails to require the kind of serious reform that will ensure long-term viability for struggling automobile companies.”

With their approach, “We open the door to unlimited federal subsidies in the future,” McConnell said.

The White House has said it shares those concerns.

“There will not be long-term financing if they can’t prove long-term viability,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.

She said the White House and Congress have made a lot of progress.

“I think overall we’re headed in the right direction,” Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One as President George W. Bush headed to West Point, N.Y., for a speech.

“We’re working fast. but we’re also wanting to get it right,” she said, adding that “I don’t know if we’ll have something finalized today. It’s possible.”

Even then, it was far from certain that proponents could muster the votes to push yet another bailout through a skeptical Congress. With some senators in both parties expected to be absent for the debate, garnering the 60 votes that would likely be necessary to pass the bill could be tricky.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a key ally of the auto industry, said getting the roughly 15 Republicans needed to support the plan was an uphill battle.

“This is a real hill to climb even if we can get agreement between the White House and congressional leaders,” he said.

Reid said the timing of an auto rescue vote is uncertain, partly because lawmakers are still waiting on the White House to decide whether to request the second half of a $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund. “That decision has not been made yet,” he said.

The current Congress is ready to depart for the year after this week, with the auto bailout legislation among the only things delaying lawmakers’ abbreviated winter break.

Cash from the Big Three bailout would immediately be plowed into General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC. Ford has said it does not have an emergency cash-flow problem and that it would not ask for short-term assistance. The czar would come up with terms for restructuring the beleaguered firms by Jan. 1, 2009.

Democrats have already given in to the White House on a key element of the measure – drawing the money from an existing loan program meant to help carmakers finance the production of greener cars.

The proposal would attach an array of conditions to the auto bailout money, including some of the same restrictions imposed on banks as part of the Wall Street rescue. Among them are limits on executive compensation, a prohibition on paying dividends, and requirements that the government share in future profits and taxpayers be repaid before any other shareholders.

The proposal gives the car czar say-so over any major business decisions by the automakers while they’re taking advantage of federal aid. The companies would have to open their books to the government, including informing the overseer of any transaction of $25 million or more.

Also under discussion is a requirement that the carmakers taking federal aid get rid of their corporate jets – which became a potent symbol of the industry’s ineptitude when the Big Three CEOs used them for their initial trips to Washington to plead before Congress for government assistance.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, if the Big Three didn’t come up with suitable restructuring plans by the end of March, the czar would have to submit his own blueprint to Congress for a government-mandated overhaul.


Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.


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