As conspiracy theories continue to mount about the death of 33-year-old journalist Michael Hastings, one prominent security analyst is substantiating the theory that Hastings’ car may have been hacked. Richard Clarke, the former chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council, believes that Hasting’s death was "consistent" with a cyberattack on his car.
Hastings, an investigative reporter who rose to fame after an explosive Rolling Stone piece that is widely believed to have directly contributed to the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, was killed in the early morning hours last week when his car collided with a tree at high-speed in Los Angeles, later catching on fire. The body pulled from the wreckage was reportedly “unrecognizable.” Officials have said that it will be weeks before autopsy results come through, the LA Times reported.
The unusual death of Hastings, who gained a reputation for his “demonstrated ability to really piss powerful people off,” immediately sparked conspiracy theories on Reddit and elsewhere, speculating that Hastings had possibly faked his own death or had been murdered in an elaborate cover up. The buzz around his death was only exacerbated by a Slate article published on Sunday, alleging that Hastings had emailed his BuzzFeed colleagues less than a day before he died saying that the FBI was interviewing his “close friends and associates” and that he was going to “go off the radar for a bit” due to a “big story” he was working on.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Clarke said that given current knowledge about hacking cars, the fatal, single car crash involving Hastings’ 2013 Mercedes C250 coupe, was “consistent with a car cyberattack.”
Clarke said that not only does the technology to hack cars exist, but “there is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers,” like the United States, are already equipped to stage such an attack.
"What has been revealed as a result of some research at universities is that it's relatively easy to hack your way into the control system of a car, and to do such things as cause acceleration when the driver doesn't want acceleration, to throw on the brakes when the driver doesn't want the brakes on, to launch an air bag," Clarke said. "You can do some really highly destructive things now, through hacking a car, and it's not that hard."
"So if there were a cyberattack on the car -- and I'm not saying there was, I think whoever did it would probably get away with it,” he added.
Clarke’s comments likely referenced a 2011 study completed by computer scientists from the University of California, San Diego and the University of Washington, which found that it was possible for hackers to remotely gain access to a person’s vehicle, and potentially assume control of some the basic functions. In an article on the study, The New York Times reported that embedded cellular connections used in vehicles manufactured by GM, Toyota, Lexus, Ford, BMW and Mercedes Benz were all capable of being remotely undermined by hackers.
“These cellular channels offer many advantages for attackers,” the report said. “They can be accessed over arbitrary distance (due to the wide coverage of cellular data infrastructure) in a largely anonymous fashion, typically have relatively high bandwidth, are two-way channels (supporting interactive control and data exfiltration) and are individually addressable.”
Clarke clarified his remarks by saying that he believes the FBI’s statement that they were not investigating Hastings. However, he said that while he is not a conspiracy theorist, he would not rule out any theories until they have been proven otherwise. "I believe the FBI when they say they weren't investigating him," Clarke said. "That was very unusual, and I'm sure they checked very carefully before they said that."
"I'm not a conspiracy guy. In fact, I've spent most of my life knocking down conspiracy theories," he added. "But my rule has always been you don't knock down a conspiracy theory until you can prove it [wrong]. And in the case of Michael Hastings, what evidence is available publicly is consistent with a car cyberattack. And the problem with that is you can't prove it."