Hacking into the traffic lights

Pierluigi Paganini June 12, 2015

Cyber security expert Cesar Cerrudo once again is warning the IT security community on the risks related to the deployment of vulnerable traffic lights.

Cesar Cerrudo, CTO at IOActive, has conducted several tests to investigate on the security of components within control systems of traffic lights and electronic signs in different cities around the world discovering an alarming reality.

It is crucial to understand the threats for components that surround us, and Cerrudo is one of the most prominent  experts that spends its time into analyzing these systems searching for security issues and provide solutions to fix them.

Traffic lights are everywhere, a possible attacks against these systems can cause serious consequences.

The first thing that comes to your mind, it’s a Hollywood classic hacking scene, I am sure, where the hacker opens the laptop and starts hacking the system, well the reality it’s not so spectacular and it takes more time but nevertheless, some things can be done, and this lead us to Cesar Cerrudo.

Cesar Cerrudo dedicates his time to hacking into municipal traffic systems, and like in Hollywood movies he could change red lights into green lights, paralyze emergency responders, shut down roads, turn thoroughfare into highways,

He warns the authorities about the vulnerability, and when his alerts are ignored, he just blog about the flaw to sensibilize public opinion on the security issue so it can press the authorities to fix them.

“What I found is that cities are filled with security problems that could have a very direct and physical impact on our lives,” Cesar.

The big problem is that cities are huge, and technology evolves every day, fix a flaw affecting the traffic lights is a time-consuming operation and many municipalities have limited budget, for this reason, it is easy to find outdated and flawed system in the wild.

Traffic lights are just the tip of the iceberg, similar problems are related to SCADA systems used worldwide in water facilities, waste and air management systems, and electric grids.

Incidents with traffic system and computer bugs happened in the past, being the best example probably the one that two years ago close down San Francisco’s train system, where passengers were trapped underground.

Traffic lights

Back in 2006 two Los Angeles traffic engineers were accused of hacking traffic lights at four big Los Angeles intersections, all this during a labor strike.


Cesar Cerrudo is one of the greatest experts that is approaching this kind of problems by highlighting the possible hacking scenarios.

“This is where everyone lives, including myself, and I am tired of pointing out the problem without offering a solution,” said Cerrudo.

He and his team are focusing their analysis on defense perspective, he is searching for vulnerable traffic lights. Weak passwords, lack of data encryption the adoption of factory settings are most common problems the experts found.

Fortunately, some municipalities are paying close attention to the security issue related to traffic lights and similar systems. David Jordan, the chief information security officer for Arlington County, said his proximity to the .Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“He has put together a “fusion” team of computer forensics specialists at the county police department, network engineers, and his security vendors at Palo Alto Networks, Trend Micro and Symantec. He also has an alert system to notify 22 other jurisdictions if his county comes under a cyberattack.” Reported the New York Times.

Mr Jordan is working together with Cesar Cerrudo to assess vulnerabilities in the mentioned systems.

“I don’t think the federal government, or the states know the status of cyber in all those counties,” ,“Cyber has yet to become a tenet of government, largely because nobody understands this, and they certainly don’t like it because it’s expensive.” Said Mr Jordan.

Patrick Nielsen, a security researcher at Kaspersky said:

“There’s been a huge disconnect between those in the security community, who do all the complaining, and those affected,” ,“The big goal of this project is to connect those in the security community with officials in cities to understand what the risks are, and how to neutralize them.”

Since Cesar Cerrudo is leading a nonprofit project they are not selling anything, which is good, “The technologies are broad, the problem is huge, and we didn’t want to point out problems without offering solutions. The only way to solve this is going to be collaboration.”

To finalize, I would like to say, that their work is highly valuable, and every municipality can benefit from this study to improve safety and security of their cities.

Now it’s a duty of the politic to provide support to such initiatives.

About the Author Elsio Pinto

Elsio Pinto (@high54security) is at the moment the Lead Mcafee Security Engineer at Swiss Re, but he also as knowledge in the areas of malware research, forensics, ethical hacking. He had previous experiences in major institutions being the European Parliament one of them. He is a security enthusiast and tries his best to pass his knowledge. He also owns his own blog http://high54security.blogspot.com/

Pierluigi Paganini


(Security Affairs –  Smart city systems, traffic lights)

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