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New York City is the perfect scooter market, but it’s also the most impossible

Electric scooters have cropped up en masse in cities across the country from Salt Lake to Washington, DC, but they won’t be hitting the most populous city in the US anytime soon.

On one hand, New York City is a natural fit for these scooter companies, which have been valued at as high as £2 billion in recent months. New York is a city with a booming public transit system that millions take every day, but it’s also filled with gaps. A recent report showed that 24 percent of the city’s subway stations — many located in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens — were inaccessible to many of the city’s residents.

Scooter companies are salivating over the prospects, and sources tell The Verge that conversations between company representatives, lobbyists, and elected officials at the state and city level are already taking place. Scooters will need to navigate a labyrinth of regulatory and infrastructure challenges if they hope to ever gain a foothold.

While there are 12,000 Citi Bikes secured across all five of the city’s boroughs, they often don’t reach the transit-hungry fringes of the city, according to Gil Kazimirov, Lime’s general manager.

That’s where scooters come in. New York would be a “tremendous scooter city because you’ve got a pretty good public transit infrastructure, but you still have a ton of gaps, particularly in the outer boroughs,” Kazimirov said.

In many cities where shared scooters have already taken hold, they act like an extension to connect with public transit hubs and fill in the gaps where they fall short. They could easily do the same in New York City, which is pretty flat overall, making for easy scooting around.

Its residents have a lot to gain by using these vehicles, according to Joseph Cutrufo, a spokesperson for the transit advocacy group Transportation Alternatives.

New York is the third most congested city in the world. This is, in part, due to curbside games of Tetris between the thousands of vehicles driving through the streets, battling against those that are double or triple parked throughout the city. This congestion is an environmental blight as well as a drag on commuters’ schedules, and it costs the city billions of dollars annually.

“It’s a borderline untenable system,” Cutrufo said, speaking of the city’s transportation network. “But, you know, we’ve grown used to it.

And though maybe we’re a little fatigued by it, we just accept the status quo as it is.”

In many ways, the city is designed for cars and only cars. As Cutrufo pointed out, the city’s dedicated almost every foot of curbside space to long-term parking — a lot of it free or low-cost. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the city’s zoning laws, which have requirements baked in that obligate the creation of curbside parking spaces for each new building.

And without curbs or designated parking, the dockless scooter system, for all of its benefits, falls apart. Scooters would get dumped onto sidewalks and block pedestrian traffic, he said.

This is happening right now in other cities where electric scooters have gained a foothold. In San Francisco, for example, scooters have been parked in the middle of sidewalks, left to lounge atop trash cans, and tossed into the bay.

Scooter users have also been caught behaving badly in other cities. Now, regulators are reacting the way San Francisco’s local government did: banning the scooters until a permitting process is in place.

“When you introduce dockless bike share, or dockless scooter share but don’t include a place for them to park, you’re kind of doing it on the cheap, politically,” Cutrufo said. “You’re saying, ‘Look at all these bikes and scooters. Look at us doing alternative transportation.’ But you’re just trying to shoehorn them into a car-focused system.

That’s not really sustainable.”

In the past few months, scooter companies have successfully grown their business nationwide. Some cities, like Milwaukee, have opted to put new regulations in place, rather than fight the impending scooter onslaught. Other cities, like Nashville, Denver, and Minneapolis, stood by helplessly as hundreds of scooters were dropped onto their streets.

It’s a messy system, but also entirely legal.

Because scooter-sharing programs are still very new, cities have been caught flatfooted. Nashville officials threatened to take action against the scooter companies when enough citizens complained of sidewalk obstructions or, in some cases, were critically injured.

The scooters in these smaller cities endured because transportation and mobility concerns tend to take the back burner to economic, education, and housing issues, says Jordan Levine, a spokesperson for electric bike service Ofo. A situation like this would never happen in New York.

For all of its faults, he said, New York City’s Department of Transportation is one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world, and New York state is perfectly clear about which electric vehicles are legal (or illegal) to ride in the city.

In the state’s eyes, the electric boost means scooters are motor vehicles, meaning they must be registered the same way someone would register a motorcycle or a moped. But there’s no process in place to register an electric scooter, leaving them in regulatory purgatory. A visit to the New York state’s DMV website reveals that “motorized scooters” can’t be ridden anywhere in the state.

The city has faced criticism for police crackdowns on electric-powered bicycles, with advocates arguing that they disproportionately hurt the immigrant delivery workers who use them to travel faster and longer than they could on traditional pedal bikes.

One city councilmember, Rafael Espinal, criticized the city’s approach in an op-ed in the New York Daily News: “If e-bike riders follow the same laws of the road as do nonelectric-bike riders, they should have the exact same access to our streets.”

Espinal voiced support for a state bill that would include electric-assisted bicycles in the definition of “bicycle,” and thereby permit their use. Legalizing e-bikes could open the door wide enough to allow scooters through, too.

The scooter companies see opportunities — and dollar signs — in a city as large and dense as New York. A source with knowledge of the scooter companies’ plans said that they are aggressively exploring ways to change the law to allow for scooter sharing. “They’re coming,” the source said. “Whether it takes a change in city law or state law, it’s coming.”

If New York state does come around to scooters, the resulting laws might lean on the stringent side, Levine said.

Expect there to be a requirement of a driver’s license and helmet, he said. And, depending on how the DOT interprets the law, it could possibly even require a motorcycle license. These decisions will determine where scooters belong: on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or streets, Levine said.

“I think that’s what the city’s really worried about,” he said. “Are bike riders going to get upset if scooters are zipping by them in bike lanes?

Are these scooters going to be able to operate in traffic in New York City streets? Are they going to hurt pedestrians if they’re on sidewalks?”

The state Senate is starting to wrestle with these issues. State Sen. Martin Golden recently introduced “The Innovative Transportation Act of 2018,” a bill that intends to make scooters legal throughout New York.

Garld Kasser, the chief of staff for Golden, didn’t respond to four emailed attempts to nail down which other states the new framework would be based on.

It turns out that other city politicians are reticent to talk about these issues as well. Genevieve Morton, the communications director who represents councilmember Brad Lander, declined to comment on the issue, as did Jacob Tugendrajch, who represents Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Stephanie Miliano, who represents councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, didn’t respond to multiple emails, and attempts to reach these councilmembers directly on the phone or via email were also ignored.

Until that gets squared away, the city’s eco-conscious commuters will have to make do with bikes rather than electric scooters.

In April, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that pedal-assist electric-bikes would be allowed to operate in the city, after previously promising to crack down on the people illegally riding them and seizing hundreds of e-bikes in the process.

On July 13th, he even teamed up with the DOT to kick off a dockless bike-share pilot in the Rockaway Peninsula.

The move suggests that similar rollbacks of current e-scooter laws could one day allow these companies a foothold.

Additional reporting by Andrew J.

Hawkins

SATCOM Attacks: Hijacking Antennas and Frying Electronics

LAS VEGAS–In 2014, Ruben Santamarta presented a talk at Black Hat that outlined potential vulnerabilities in satellite communications systems (SATCOM). Four years later, Santamarta returned with some sobering news: his proof-of-concepts[1] from 2014 were far more conservative than the truth. In the course of his research, he found the GPS coordinates of military SATCOM systems, botnets on boats, and aircrafts inflight that were remotely accessible from the internet.

Along the way, he discovered that it’s possible to weaponize hijacked SATCOM systems. Santamarta, principal security consultant the security company IOActive, previewed his talk[2] earlier at Black Hat. He revealed his broad conclusions, and outlined some of the consequences his attacks could have.

He didn’t reveal the full scope of the vulnerabilities until later in the conference. The issues Santamarta found were serious enough that he and his colleagues have withheld some information until vendors and relevant government agencies are able to implement mitigations or fixes. Santamarta also stressed that while his research involves commercial aircraft, after working with industry and regulatory agencies he determined that it wasn’t possible to affect the safety of aircraft, even in-flight.

But don’t worry, it’s still scary and exciting.

Hacking a Moving Target, That’s Also Flying

Santamarta has a background in attacking SATCOM systems[3], but the story of this research goes back a year ago to when he took a flight from Madrid to Copenhagen. The airline offered free Wi-Fi[4], so Santamarta did what any good researcher would do: he fired up Wireshark and started looking at the traffic on the public network. “I noticed I was receiving some random scans from the internet on my computer,” which seemed awfully odd considering he was at least 10,000 feet above the ground. It seemed like these airplanes were directly accessible from the internet.

Back on the ground, Santamarta confirmed his suspicions. A quick search on Shodan[5], a search engine for devices connected to the internet, pulled up several airplanes currently in the air. “I was able to verify that the fleets from Southwest, Norwegian, and Icelandair were exposed to the internet,” he said. It’s crucial to note that these systems are only in operation when the plane is in the air; they’re disabled on the ground.

Santamarta noticed that several of the devices he was seeing were from connected device and managed network provider Hughes[6]. “In 2014, I discovered several backdoors in Hughes products,” he explained. “When I saw this product was from Hughes, it was suspicious.” Indeed, he found several backdoors that allowed him to gain deep control of the SATCOM system, letting him read and write to memory and install arbitrary firmware. What Santamarta discovered was a major security risk, but not a risk to the safety of the aircraft. From the ground, he was able to access many onboard systems inclujding the in-flight Wi-Fi.

That meant he could potentially attack and compromise crew and customer devices connected to the Wi-Fi. He wasn’t, however, able to gain access to any safety systems like pilot communication or navigation. However, there were other threats.

Santamarta found an Internet of Things (IoT) botnet[7] attempting to install itself on the plane. Clearly, he said, this botnet didn’t expect to find itself on an airplane, and wasn’t successful. It wasn’t the last botnet Santamarta would come across.

Going Military

After his success with commercial aviation systems, Santamarta turned his attention to military SATCOM systems.

The results were not encouraging. “I found military SATCOM systems exposed to the internet, and these had a GPS unit attached,” he said. Worse, some of these systems were located in conflict zones.

Being able to reach military systems from the internet is very bad, but being able to determine the precise location of that system is even worse. “Unfortunately, this problem is not completely fixed,” said Santamarta. “[I’m] not providing further details until we are sure it is completely mitigated.”

Maritime Mayhem

By far, the worst vulnerabilities Santamarta discovered were in the maritime sector. Here, he focused on Intellian SATCOM systems[8].

Things did not bode well when he went to the company’s website looking to download a copy of the firmware and discovered that their Amazon S3 buckets were completely exposed. That turned out to be reflected in the company’s SATCOM systems, which were chock full of backdoors, insecure protocols, and buffer overflows. “You can get root in hundreds of ways, so that’s no problem,” quipped Santamarta.

Many of these SATCOM systems were accessible from the internet. “There are dozens — hundreds of [Antenna Control Units] exposed,” he said. As with the commercial aircraft, these devices were already under attack. “It was worse,” he said. “In this case, it was already exposed to the Mirai botnet[9],” said Santamarta. “They were using an insecure password that was implemented [in the botnet].” On stage with Santamarta was one such maritime SATCOM system.

To demonstrate the kind of control he was able to exert over these devices, Santamarta had the communications dish mimic the movements he made onscreen while playing a game about shooting Nazis.

Demonstrating that he had control over a SATCOM unit, Santamarta used it to kill (virtual) Nazis at #BlackHat2018Also notable, he could potentially use the SATCOM antenna as a weapon, maybe burning skin or causing electronics to malfunction. pic.twitter.com/ZlrmibEXAf[10][11]

— Bitter, Tired, and Sweaty (@wmaxeddy) August 9, 2018[12]

Unlike the other vendors and agencies Santamarta and his team worked with, the maritime sector was less responsive. “We were unable to contact Intellian,” he said. We can presume that these systems are still vulnerable to attack.

Frying Skin and Electronics With SATCOM

Any system connected to the internet when it doesn’t need to be is bad, but SATCOM systems offer unique opportunities. “An antenna is just a way to expose or transmit radio frequencies, which is electromagnetic energy,” explained Santamarta.

If he could increase the output, it would be possible to turn the transmitter into an offensive weapon. “We have the ability to transmit whatever we want, to control the antenna positioning,” he said. Exposure to high-levels of electromagnetic (EM) radiation has consequences for both humans and electrical systems. “We can potentially burn people, or we can potentially create [a] malfunction in electrical systems,” Santamarta explained. Looking at pictures of antenna placement on cargo and cruise ships, he theorized that compromised antennas could be used to burn passengers or crew, and potentially cripple critical shipboard electronics.

I’m so pumped for this. #BlackHat2018 pic.twitter.com/NHGgf5ngms[13][14]

— Bitter, Tired, and Sweaty (@wmaxeddy) August 9, 2018[15]

Proving it is another matter.

Broadcasting outside of certain frequencies can get you in trouble with regulatory agencies, which is a big problem. However, Santamarta found the equations used to calculate the operational ranges of these devices on the FCC website. Using these, he was able to mathematically model antenna performance and conclude that, indeed, these antennas could be pushed beyond their intended output.

There are supposed to be software blocks to prevent this, but Santamarta evaded them easily. That’s not the case for commercial aircraft, however. Because of government regulations, there’s a required distance between aircraft at airports. “At this distance there is no risk for the safety of people or instruments,” explained Santamarta.

Part of this is because high-powered radio antennas have been used in airports for decades. “They have been exposed to high intensity radio frequencies for years,” Santamarta said. “They have developed the compensating controls and the mitigation for any kind of problems with RF attacks.” Aircrafts are designed with this in mind. “The regulatory level that the aircrafts comply with is higher than the electric field we can achieve,” said Santamarta. “According to our figures, according to the input we have received from the industry, we concluded there is no safety risk for the aircraft.” “Even if we consider we have compromised hundreds of antennas and we are pointed at the aircraft […] we should be safe,” he said.

Santamarta did mention that a scenario with multiple compromised SATCOM systems could have another target: the satellites themselves. “As we control hundreds of these SATCOM terminals, it is possible to perform a disruption attack against a satellite transponder,” he said.

References

  1. ^ proof-of-concepts (uk.pcmag.com)
  2. ^ previewed his talk (uk.pcmag.com)
  3. ^ SATCOM systems (www.pcmag.com)
  4. ^ free Wi-Fi (uk.pcmag.com)
  5. ^ Shodan (www.shodan.io)
  6. ^ Hughes (www.hughes.com)
  7. ^ botnet (uk.pcmag.com)
  8. ^ Intellian SATCOM systems (www.intelliantech.com)
  9. ^ Mirai botnet (uk.pcmag.com)
  10. ^ #BlackHat2018 (twitter.com)
  11. ^ pic.twitter.com/ZlrmibEXAf (t.co)
  12. ^ August 9, 2018 (twitter.com)
  13. ^ #BlackHat2018 (twitter.com)
  14. ^ pic.twitter.com/NHGgf5ngms (t.co)
  15. ^ August 9, 2018 (twitter.com)

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