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Connected Car Cybersecurity Guide: How To Protect Yourself & Your Data

When the internet made its way into our homes with PCs in the 1990s, and then into our hands with modern smartphones in the 2010s, it was only a matter of time until the internet made its way to our cars.

However, like other devices connected to the internet, there’s always a risk that your connected car could be the target of cyber-crime and hacking. That’s why Vanarama has put together our connected cars cybersecurity guide – to help you learn more about connected cars, how to stay vigilant and keep your car protected against potential threats.

What is a Connected Car?

A connected car is a car that can directly communicate with other vehicles, systems, and infrastructure outside of its immediate vicinity. It does this by benefiting from its own high-speed internet connection, normally a wireless local area network (WLAN). Internet access allows the connected car to share data and download software updates, think of it as a smartphone on wheels!

Have Connected Cars Arrived In The UK?

Connected cars have been around in some form since the mid-1990s when General Motors fitted many of their models with their OnStar system. The system provided a voice and GPS link to the emergency services in the event of an accident – ground-breaking for the time.

Fast forward to 2018 and there were three million connected cars on UK roads. This rose to 8.6 million in 2020 according to expert research. In total, 67% of newly registered cars in the UK are now connected, meaning that they have a live internet connection that transmits data to external sources. According to Statista Research, all new car registrations in the UK will be connected cars by 2026.

It’s safe to say – they have arrived! Examples of connected cars on UK roads today include the Tesla Model 3, BMW 1 Series and Porsche Taycan.

The same trend towards connected cars is being replicated in different parts of the world. According to figures from ABI Research, 30 million new connected vehicles were sold in 2020, making up around 41% of new car sales worldwide.

With connected cars becoming more common and set to account for all new car registrations by 2026 in the UK, cybersecurity concerns around them are increasing. Continue reading to find out the main security issues facing connected cars and what you can do to protect your vehicle and data.

What Are The Security Threats Around Connected Cars?

Although connected cars look set to herald a new era of automotive innovation, all technology comes with some negatives. With connected cars, concerns have been raised about cybersecurity. As each connected car has a live internet connection, many say that automakers are facing the same challenges as the likes of Apple and Android do with their smartphones.

Here are the main security threats around connected cars:

Theft Of Personal Data

Perhaps the biggest threat around connected cars is the ability of hackers to steal your personal information. Like laptops and smartphones, any device connected to the internet is going to be vulnerable to cyber threats and connected cars are no different. Unsecure websites and third-party applications are the main entry points for hackers. Data that interests hackers includes your name, email, phone number, entertainment preferences and location data.

Vehicle Theft

Although conventional car keys have been getting gradually swapped for keyless entry for some time, connected cars will add alternative ways to access your vehicle. Digital keys, wireless fobs and mobile applications will be able to control the various functions of your car, including entry. It’s been shown that hackers can intercept communications between smart devices and gain entry to a connected vehicle.

Remote Hijacking

Another threat to connected car drivers is unscrupulous individuals attempting to remotely hijack the vehicle. Although it’s extremely rare and hard to replicate, it has been proven that it’s possible. Individuals could control the direction of a connected car from their laptop and guide it to a location of their choosing. However, unless you’re the President Of The United States, we wouldn’t worry about this one too much!

Safety-Critical Systems

In your car, the safety system most likely includes cruise control which is activated to improve stability around corners. Only the driver can turn the cruise control on or off depending on the road surface. Although the possibility is still debated by experts, it’s been speculated that hackers could remotely disable the safety features of a connected car, such as the cruise control, brakes, and steering – leaving the car vulnerable to accidents.

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Mobile Applications

Not only do you have the security of your connected car to consider, but also your iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. Another vulnerability in connected car infrastructure is the direct link to smartphone applications. Manufacturer apps can control the heating, windscreen wipers, fans, and audio system of your connected car among other features. Should a hacker be able to infiltrate the security of the car’s smartphone app, they’ll be able to control whether your temperature is akin to the Antarctic or the Sahara Desert.

Security Updates

Connected cars offer regular software updates to protect you and your connected car from the latest cybersecurity threats and bugs found in existing software. However, the risk comes if motorists ignore or forget to update their cars, leaving them exposed to potential hackers. Think of all those annoying popups to download new software on your smartphone – do you download it immediately or in a couple of months when you remember?

Vehicle Infotainment

Lastly, the connected vehicle’s native infotainment also represents a potential threat for a variety of reasons. As connected cars become more popular, so will their various infotainment operating platforms. In the future, it’s possible there could be malware specifically designed to be a threat to your connected car and the same operating system which you pay for toll road charges and parking fines.

Secondly, car companies are extremely experienced when it comes to making cars, but software is a new field of automotive innovation. Several security flaws have been reported in infotainment software produced by some of the world’s largest car manufacturers as they grapple with a new, connected world.

Although a lot of these security threats sound concerning, they are extremely rare and, in some cases, unproven.

How Can I Protect My Connected Car?

There are several ways to maximise the security of your connected car and protect your personal information. Many of the tips mirror the safety advice used for other devices connected to the internet such as laptops and smartphones.

Here are eight tips to protect your connected car from potential security threats:

1) Perform A Factory Reset

Perform a factory reset when you take ownership of your car, especially if you’re purchasing it second-hand. The former owner may have used malware to capture your personal information or even monitor your movements. By performing a factory reset, the threat should be minimised.

2) Protect Your Password

This should go without saying, but don’t leave your password lying around for anyone to see. Many security attempts begin as the result of the victim leaving a footprint of their data, either online or offline, for a hacker to find and exploit. Keep the password to your connected car mobile application stored in a safe place away from prying eyes.

3) Only Use Approved Apps

Where you can only use approved mobile apps on the Apple or Android app stores. If a hacker gains control of your phone, they may also be able to gain control of your connected car. That’s why it’s also important to avoid using your car’s web browser. Simply use your mobile browser instead once safely parked.

4) Sign Out Of The Cloud

Sign out of the cloud to prevent your data from being stored on unprotected servers. By signing into the cloud, you permit your data to be stored online, rather than offline. This leaves it vulnerable to online threats, in the same way that your PC or laptop is. You may lose access to some features, but this security measure could be a worthwhile step to protect your connected car and data.

5) Stay Updated On Vehicle Recalls

Be sure to stay updated on vehicle recalls taking place. As connected cars are a relatively new technology, there have been instances of millions of cars being recalled in the past once a security flaw has been detected. By staying on top of news from your connected car manufacturer, you’ll always have the best protection possible against cybersecurity threats.

6) Understand Permissions

We’ve all done it. You download a new app on your phone and you’re presented with a 10,000-word terms and conditions page asking you to accept or decline. Most of us press accept without ever reading the T&Cs, and it’s the same in connected cars. To protect your data, take the time to read what you’re signing up for and where your data may be heading.

7) Update Your Software

If there is a bug with your infotainment or security system, the last thing you want to do is leave the door open for hackers to take advantage of. Keep on top of any software updates for the very best cybersecurity protection from your connected car manufacturer.

8) Use Apple Carplay / Android Auto

Although car manufacturers have done a lot of catching up in recent years when it comes to cybersecurity, they still trail the likes of Apple and Android. The two brands have decades of experience due to their mobile operating platforms. Although not essential, if you wanted to be super cautious you could stick to Apple Carplay and Android Auto for now while native car systems get up to speed.

Needless to say, no security system is full proof. However, if you follow the steps above, your connected car and data should be safe and sound.

Have Connected Cars Been Hacked Before?

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There have been several high-profile instances of flaws in security being found in connected cars, but there have been no situations where a hacker has used them maliciously. Car manufacturers and governing bodies are always learning lessons and making vehicles more secure.

In 2016, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek managed to hack into a Jeep remotely with a journalist driving the car. Don’t worry! The journalist was fully aware the hack was about to take place. The hackers were able to control all functions of the vehicle, speeding it up, slowing it down and eventually diverting it off the road entirely. The hack ultimately led to the recall of 1.4 million Fiat Chrysler vehicles. This is the only known instance of someone being able to remotely hack and control a connected car.

Other car brands have experienced vulnerabilities such as Tesla, BMW and General Motors. However, they have mainly involved driver information being leaked rather than hackers taking control of a vehicle. In 2017, a hacker called Jason Hughes found a way to download Tesla supercharger data and shared the information on the Tesla Motors Club forum. Twenty minutes later, he was on the phone with Tesla’s head of security who asked him politely to stop. He agreed and received a $5,000 reward.

Are There Benefits Of Connected Cars?

Of course – that’s why connected cars are becoming so popular despite the security concerns that many have. The main benefits can be summed up in one word: convenience. Connected cars can take advantage of:

· Regular software updates mean that your car will always have the latest functionality available to it and will be future-proofed.

· Passengers will enjoy access to a large range of entertainment features, such as watching Netflix in your new Tesla.

· Up to the minute navigation software will make intelligent decisions based on reports of traffic congestion and other issues, saving you time.

· You’ll be able to control your car using a smartphone application, pre-setting the temperature, locking/unlocking the car and even in some cases summoning the car to your location.

· Occupants will be less likely to be involved in accidents as the car deploys sensors, scanning the vicinity for threats.

· Connected cars will also be more fuel and cost-efficient by choosing the optimal route more consistently than their less-intelligent counterparts.

If a car that will warm up for you ten minutes before leaving the house sounds up your street, check out the latest connected cars to hit the market on our car leasing page. To stay up to date with the latest automotive news, advice, and opinion, make sure to bookmark the Vanarama blog.

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