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Connected Car Cyber-Security: Media Hysteria or Something to Worry About?

By Scott Frank, Vice President of Marketing at Airbiquity.

This article originally appeared on Motor World Magazine.

If you work in connected cars you must have been “off the grid” in first quarter 2015 to miss the surge of mainstream press coverage on connected car cyber-security, or hacking.

General consumer awareness of the topic spiked on Feb. 8 when “60 Minutes” ran a story on connected car hacking with reporter Lesley Stahl driving a vehicle that was hacked by a crack team from the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). One can imagine the fear and anxiety that was inflicted on the program’s 12.2 million average viewers when the hackers began controlling multiple car functions and messing with the brakes and accelerator — all from outside the vehicle. Luckily, traffic cones were the only casualties, but the safety implications were crystal clear.

After the “60 Minutes” story aired, automotive industry discussion spooled up regarding how authentic the DARPA car hack really was. Did they have special access to the car that a hacker wouldn’t get? Did they hardwire something into the car that a hacker wouldn’t be able to do? Although those of us in the technology industry relish these kinds of debates, we have to face the fact that the end-result was negative consumer perception blowback onto the automotive industry about how connected car cyber-security is being addressed when cars are increasingly becoming connected. Not to mention the surfacing of yet another potential area of consumer and government scrutiny during a time of record vehicle recalls for manufacturing defects, consumer class-action lawsuits against automakers and very public questions concerning the quality of safety-related vehicle parts.

Should the general public be overly concerned about connected car cyber-security? Not in my opinion, and here’s why: The primary motivation for professional hackers is to make money by stealing personal information, preferably in large quantities from as few places as possible to minimize detection risk while maximizing monetary yield. At this point in time, hacking individual cars doesn’t align with a professional hacker’s preferred targets, which are much more lucrative high-yield businesses such as banks, credit card and healthcare companies, government agencies and national retail chains, or lesser yielding small businesses and home computer one-offs. More importantly, though, the automotive industry is well aware of connected car cyber-security and already hard at work assessing, mitigating and improving connected car security.

The automotive industry as a collective has been focused on vehicle safety for the 100-plus years cars have been in existence. This is evidenced by the introduction — and continual evolution — of technology and features like anti-lock brakes, traction control, automatic seat belts and the gazillion airbags in most cars today to name a few of the more recent examples. This continual focus on vehicle safety is being proactively extended to connected car cyber-security as the automotive industry voluntarily and rapidly coalesces around new technologies that will enable and protect connected cars and their users. Plus, the automotive industry is tapping into the extensive know-how of the communications industry to fully leverage the latest cyber-security technologies, such as user identification and authentication, systems isolation, firewalls and encryption. Although it may seem simple from the consumer perspective, building cars that are safe, secure and increasingly cyber-secure is actually a very complex thing to do. But rest assured, the automotive industry is very well versed in getting complex things done.

It’s important to remember that connected cars are just one of an increasing number of connected “things” in our increasingly connected world which is definitely going to evolve and grow exponentially larger going forward. Every manufacturer of connected products or services, including cars, must incorporate countermeasures to mitigate hacking and ensure the value and safety of its offerings for customers. At the same time, consumers that benefit and rely on the utility and convenience of their connected devices also must become informed about the security issues and do what they can to mitigate personal risk and exposure.

Scott Frank is the vice president of marketing for Airbiquity. Prior to joining Airbiquity in 2013, he worked at leading communications, publishing and technology companies for more than 25 years, including J. Walter Thompson, IDC, IBM and Microsoft. He has developed, deployed, and optimized integrated marketing programs on a global scale.

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