Connected cars are poised to become one of the biggest changes in the driving experience since the invention of the automobile, and they could be on the road within a decade. They present many exciting opportunities, but also new threats to our privacy and security. In this post, we’ll dive into exactly what lies behind the connected car concept and what it means for privacy.
Let’s start with a primer on connected cars. The connected car is the ultimate goal of several different trends in the automobile industry, especially networking and self-driving cars. The connected car is a car that is increasingly connected to the Internet and, potentially, to the cars around it. The final form of the connected car is a fleet of automated cars that drive themselves and communicate wirelessly with each other to determine traffic patterns, removing the need for defensive driving courses or any human intervention at all. At an intermediate scale, connected cars are just cars like the ones we have today that make much greater use of the Internet. There is significant potential in better-streamed entertainment, improved connection to navigation software, and similar features.
The primary downside is the very thing that makes connected cars attractive: the Internet connection. Anyone who has paid attention to the headlines over the past few years has seen dozens of examples of companies of all sizes and all industries that have been hacked, causing the release of personal information and financial records. These hacks have generally resulted in decreased trust in the companies involved, which range from Target to Yahoo. The sheer number of companies that have announced hacks has made it hard to put much trust in data security, at least for companies that consumers interact with on a daily basis.
By definition connected cars are Internet-facing. A significant amount of web traffic will flow to and from connected cars, and that traffic has to be meaningful for it to be valuable. It is likely to include personal information as well as location data and possibly financial information. That alone will make it interesting to hackers. The potential benefits of hacking connected cars will be just as high as hacking a laptop, or even higher. For example, it would be possible to track a car’s movements to identify when the owners tend to be away from home, so that the house is unguarded and an easier target for theft. That is an extreme example, but it is within the realm of possibility. Consider something as simple as renting a movie to stream: credit card information would have to flow over the connection. At least for now, early prototypes of connected cars have not included extensive data security. It is possible that the fact that the base is a moving car and the demands of creating a good streaming connection to that moving target will make it harder to encrypt and protect the data in the stream. If so, security will be a problem for years to come.
The most insidious and dramatic example of hacking a connected car is the threat that a hacker could actually gain control over the car’s function. This is not entire impossible: researchers have already demonstrated the ability to break into a car’s system remotely and issue it some commands. While this is unlikely to result in kidnappings and other sensational outcomes, it does open up the possibility that hackers could proactively dive into the car’s onboard memory and search for valuable data instead of just waiting for something useful to pass through the stream. Even basic identifying information can be useful for identify theft, and it is hard to imagine that connected cars won’t need to keep some of that data on hand.
The upside for connected cars is entrancing for many reasons. However, that does not mean that the road will be smooth. There are a lot of problems to work out along the way, and privacy is one of the more important ones. It has the potential to expose even more Americans to damaging hacks, expanding the scope of what is already a worsening problem. The auto industry needs to commit to a serious investment in information security.
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