General Motors names new cyber security chief

General Motors made a splash earlier this month when it announced it would add wireless hotspots to many vehicles in its 2015 lineup and introduce more advanced technology going forward.

It's probably no coincidence, then, that the company recently named its first-ever director of cyber security. GM announced that Jeff Massimilla, a former engineering group manager in charge of infotainment systems, would assume the new role.

Massimilla, sitting in the driver's seat in the above picture, is a University of Michigan engineering graduate who has focused on center-stack technology throughout his career at GM and also recently served as a program manager for Cadillac CUE. He'll head a team that's tackling one of the most vexing challenges in the auto industry right now – keeping vehicles secure.

Cars have becoming mobile computers in recent years. Dozens of small computers on each vehicle run every conceivable system, from seat-belt tensioners to telematics units to brakes. As vehicle software becomes more advanced and cars use real-time data for safety information, the security of these systems has gained importance.

GM's WiFi hotspots, which offer users a 4G connection available through its OnStar infotainment system, push the technology and needs for security one step further. In its advertising, the company says the availability of an integrated WiFi hotspot provides a more powerful connection than a smart phone or mobile hotspot for consumers.

Researchers fear these external-facing infotainment units are precisely the point hackers will target. "We consider it to be the holy grail because of its range," says Chris Valasek, director of vehicle research at IOActive, a software security company.

There are no reports yet of an actual cyber attack co-opting a vehicle on American roads, but researchers have demonstrated it is possible to both remotely and physically compromise a car and manipulate key functions, like steering and braking. Earlier this month, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told automakers he wanted them to collaborate on ways to standardize security procedures and develop protocols by the end of next year.

Massimilla has served in a variety of roles during his tenure with GM, previously serving in the company's next-generation infotainment department and as a director of global validation. In his new role, he'll report to Ken Morris, GM's vice president of global product integrity.

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