Cars and their Internet connections

March 13, 2014

­­­­Last weekend I attended the Connected Car pavilion during South by Southwest (SXSW) where a number of car manufacturers and associated vendors showed off their cool and next generation toys.

Security Evangelist

­­­­Last weekend I attended the Connected Car pavilion during South by Southwest (SXSW) where a number of car manufacturers and associated vendors showed off their cool and next generation toys.

What is a connected car? Well this breaks down to two different scenarios, one is the infotainment system, the screen in the console that provides you with navigation tools, phone, music and more to keep you amused while driving. The other type of car connection is where the driver system, or the car itself, is sharing data or being updated dynamically by the manufacturer. Take the Tesla for example, an electric car which is reliant of software to manage every feature from the engine to the door locks.

There are several concerns being raised about the privacy of data being collected by the manufacturers of the car or the infotainment system. People want to make sure their data is being used responsibly. Are the concerns valid?

Let’s start with the infotainment system.

The cars in the pavilion included Jeep, Tesla, Volvo and Hyundai. Other than the Tesla, the infotainment system delivers music linked to your existing services like Pandora, Spotify or others. It’s cool that I can stream music while driving, as if I was on my tablet, phone or computer.

Manufacturers then add some handy features like real-time traffic information and even the ability to do a voice Yelp search allowing you to get to the nearest pizza outlet quickly.

Then there is the Tesla, a next generation futuristic looking car that is on the road today. The Tesla console is completely different, and has the ability to check email and browse the web. In functionality it’s more like having a mobile device such as a tablet.

Watch this video of a Tesla on display at SXSW

As you’d expect, there are some restrictions.For example no flash or video can be watched due to road safety regulations, but at present you can read you email while driving. I am sure that regulators will catch up at some stage and introduce safe driving legislation for the new connected generation. After all, with so many new distractions taking our attention away from the road, safety should be a primary concern for all of us.

With this awesome ability to be fully connected also comes the risk of hacking. Connected cars run proprietary systems that are either limited or hardened by the car manufacturer and you are in a managed ecosystem which of course reduces that risk. In most cases, I would liken this to the self-service check-in kiosk at an airport, it runs a modified runtime version of an OS and does not allow you access to the inside of the system, a bit like the system being used in a car. Of course that’s not to say it’s not hackable and I am sure someone will find a vulnerability to exploit. If you can hack someone’s on board navigation system, then it’s perfectly possible to lead them astray until they are lost.  Given how often I get lost, this might have already happened to me!

There is a question on the infotainment system that requires us as consumers to take an active interest. Does this mean that at some stage if they know I like pizza that an ad could be displayed as I drive past a pizza outlet?Or will they join up my location to my other devices and start targeting me with marketing offers. We need to watch for this and make sure we are happy with what data is being shared and also be aware that when we sell the car we need to delete our history. You wouldn’t sell a laptop without deleting all your files first would you?

Then there is the other type of connection where manufacturers are collecting diagnostic data, driving performance details, location etc. Is our privacy a concern here?

The data being collected can map our lives by location, driving habits and ability, where we live, our kids go to school and in the future maybe even our stress level when the system joins up with some wearable monitoring our vital statistics. Will the data get shared with insurance, medical or even law enforcement agencies and if it does what will they do with it?


Before we get carried away, let’s just reflect though for a moment. A device that knows your speed, where you go, what take away establishments you visit, has your email address. Sounds a lot like my smartphone! If you think about it, many of the data privacy issues with the connected car are very similar.

Do you switch off location services so apps don’t know your location? Do you not share data from your fitness wearable or use private browsing when on public Wi-Fi? Most people are happy to share many elements of their live and actually your phone is collecting much more than your car is today and you carry it everywhere you go.

So what about the security side of things? Hacking this driver system could be possible, but at present it has only been demonstrated by ethical hackers and from within the vehicle itself. I think the real challenge to us as consumers is understanding how connected cars collect and share our data so that we can make a personal decision on what we are willing to share. It’s up to car manufacturers to make sure that we as consumers are given this choice in a clear and simple way.

But is it all bad? Of course not! The Tesla owner I spoke to at the pavilion gave me a great example of the benefits of having a connected car. He told me that the car had a minor noise coming from the back, so he called the dealer and they managed to diagnose the fault remotely and asked him to come in to replace the needed part.

You’ve got to love that customer service! Then imagine an engine that could give you safer and better performance on the fly as you drive through various conditions, maybe altitude and weather would benefit from dynamic adjustment of the engine management system. There are clearly some great things about connected cars!

In conclusion I think that connected cars are an exciting emerging technology. While legislators and car manufacturers are going to be working hard to make sure that we are safe in the vehicle, we all we need to pay similar attention to keeping our data safe.

The next time you visit a showroom, ask the salesperson about the privacy policy and what data is being shared and retained.

Tony Anscombe
March 13, 2014