EV Charger Hacking Poses a ‘Catastrophic’ Risk

Such cracks could conceivably permit hackers to access vehicle data or consumers’ credit card information, says Ken Munro, a cofounder of Pen Test Partners. But perhaps the most worrying weakness to him was that, as with the Concordia testing, his team discovered that many of the devices allowed hackers to stop or start charging at will. That could leave frustrated drivers without a full battery when they need one, but it’s the cumulative impacts that could be truly devastating.

“It’s not about your charger, it’s about everyone’s charger at the same time,” he says. Many home users leave their cars connected to chargers even if they aren’t drawing power. They might, for example, plug in after work and schedule the vehicle to charge overnight when prices are lower. If a hacker were to switch thousands, or millions, of chargers on or off simultaneously, it could destabilize and even bring down entire electricity networks. 

“We’ve inadvertently created a weapon that nation-states can use against our power grid,” says Munro. The United States glimpsed what such an attack might look like in 2021 when hackers hijacked Colonial Pipeline and disrupted gasoline supplies nationwide. The attack ended once the company paid millions of dollars in ransom.

Munro’s top recommendation for consumers is to not connect their home chargers to the internet, which should prevent the exploitation of most vulnerabilities. The bulk of safeguards, however, must come from manufacturers.

“It’s the responsibility of the companies offering these services to make sure they are secure,” says Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit. “To some degree, you have to trust the device you’re plugging into.”

Electrify America declined an interview request. With regard to the issues Malcolm and the Kilowatts documented, spokesperson Octavio Navarro wrote in an email that the incidents were isolated and the fixes were quickly deployed. In a statement, the company said, “Electrify America is constantly monitoring and reinforcing measures to protect ourselves and our customers and focusing on risk-mitigating station and network design.”

Pen Test Partners wrote in its findings that companies were by and large responsive to fixing the vulnerabilities it identified, with ChargePoint and others plugging gaps in less than 24 hours (though one company created a new hole while trying to patch the old one). Project EV did not respond to Pen Test Partners but did eventually implement “strong authentication and authorization.” Experts, however, argue that it’s far past time for the industry to move beyond this whack-a-mole approach to cybersecurity.

“Everybody knows this is an issue and lots of people are trying to figure out how to best solve it,” says Johnson, adding that he has seen progress. For example, many public charging stations have upgraded to more secure methods of transmitting data. But as for a coordinated set of standards, he says, “there’s not much regulation out there.”

There has been some movement toward changing that. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included some $7.5 billion to expand the electric vehicle charging network across the US, and the Biden administration has made cybersecurity part of that initiative. Last fall, the White House convened manufacturers and policymakers to discuss a path toward ensuring that increasingly vital electric vehicle charging hardware is properly protected.

“Our critical infrastructure needs to meet a baseline level of security and resilience,” says Harry Krejsa, chief strategist at the White House Office of the National Cyber Director. He also argued that bolstering EV cybersecurity is as much about building trust as it is mitigating risk. Secure systems, he says, “give us the confidence in our next-generation digital foundations to aim higher than we possibly could have otherwise.”