Covert Channel-Based Transmitter Authentication in Controller Area Networks

Xuhang Ying*, Giuseppe Bernieri, Mauro Conti, Linda Bushnell, Radha Poovendran

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


In recent years, the security of automotive Cyber-Physical Systems (CPSs) is facing urgent threats due to the widespread use of legacy in-vehicle communication systems. As a representative legacy bus system, the Controller Area Network (CAN) hosts Electronic Control Units (ECUs) that are crucial for the vehicles functioning. In this scenario, malicious actors can exploit the CAN vulnerabilities, such as the lack of built-in authentication and encryption schemes, to launch CAN bus attacks (e.g., suspension, injection, and masquerade attacks) with life-threatening consequences (e.g., disabling brakes). In this article, we present TACAN (Transmitter Authentication in CAN), which provides secure authentication of ECUs on the legacy CAN bus by exploiting the covert channels, without introducing CAN protocol modifications or traffic overheads (no extra bits or CAN messages are used). TACAN turns upside-down the originally malicious concept of covert channels and exploits it to build an effective defensive technique that facilitates transmitter authentication via a centralized, trusted Monitor Node. TACAN consists of three different covert channels for ECU authentication: 1) the Inter-Arrival Time (IAT)-based, leveraging the IATs of CAN messages; 2) the Least Significant Bit (LSB)-based, concealing authentication messages into the LSBs of normal CAN data; and 3) a hybrid covert channel, exploiting the combination of the first two. In order to validate TACAN, we implement the covert channels on the University of Washington (UW) EcoCAR (Chevrolet Camaro 2016) testbed. We further evaluate the bit error, throughput, and detection performance of TACAN through extensive experiments using the EcoCAR testbed and a publicly available dataset collected from Toyota Camry 2010. We demonstrate the feasibility of TACAN and the effectiveness of detecting CAN bus attacks, highlighting no traffic overheads and attesting the regular functionality of ECUs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2665-2679
Number of pages15
JournalIEEE Transactions on Dependable and Secure Computing
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Controller Area Network (CAN)
  • covert channel
  • Cyber-Physical System (CPS) security
  • intrusion detection
  • Transmitter authentication


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