Consumer vehicles are just a recent addition to the national security equation. But thanks to the globalized economy and modern product development, they are perhaps the trickiest challenge yet.
As it stands, Teslas are arguably the most connected and widespread of a new generation of vehicles. Not only do they hoover up a massive amount of data on the driver—from call logs to on-board browser history to average speed and route history—but their outward-facing sensors and cameras can relay a considerable amount of information about the surrounding world.
David Colombo, a 19-year-old German programmer, proved earlier this year that accessing incredibly sensitive data on Tesla users wasn’t just possible—it was fairly easy. Using a third-party application with access to Tesla’s API, Colombo got into the systems of more than two dozen Teslas around the world, controlling their locks, windows, and sound systems and downloading a huge bundle of information.
“I was able to see a large amount of data. Including where the Tesla has been, where it charged, current location, where it usually parks, when it was driving, the speed of the trips, the navigation requests, history of software updates, even a history of weather around the Tesla and just so much more,” Colombo wrote in a Medium post published in January that detailed his exploits.
While the specific vulnerabilities Colombo took advantage of have been patched, his hack demonstrates a huge flaw at the core of these smart vehicles: Sharing data is not a bug; it’s a feature.
The amount of data Tesla collects and uses is just the tip of the iceberg. We have yet to see fully autonomous vehicles or the much-vaunted “smart cities,” which could see 5G-enabled roads and traffic lights.
In the near future, cars will not only collect information about their driver and passengers, but the vehicles, pedestrians, and city around them. Some of that data will be necessary for the car to function properly—to reduce collisions, better plan routes, and improve the vehicles themselves.
“The United States and Europe have been asleep at the wheel,” says Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights. The US, Canada, and Europe may continue to be the world leaders in producing traditional vehicles, but that lead won’t hold for long. Whether it’s cobalt mining, lithium battery innovation, 5G-enabled technology, or large data analytics, Le says China has been several steps ahead of its Western competitors.