Car-Hacking Expert Says Autonomous Cars Would Be Terrible Drug Mules
Self-driving cars are going to be the biggest snitches, with all the data they collect about where they are and what they're up to.
- The idea of self-driving cars being used for crime has been suggested, but a car-hacking expert told us success for autonomous drug mules or other criminal endeavors is not that likely.
- The systems will surely be exploited at some point, experts told Car and Driver, but likely not for high-level crimes due to the expense, time, and knowledge it would take to pull it off.
- However, it's those working at ride-hailing companies and service providers for automakers will be the ones with the access needed for such schemes.
While we're still years and years away from truly autonomous veicles, it's important for automakers, ride-share companies, and security researchers to figure out how these robot vehicles might be hacked or used in ways not intended by the manufacturers. After the OnStar hack of a few years ago where someone could take over a vehicle from the comfort of their own home, companies involved in transportation realized that if there's a security issue with a vehicle or system connected to a vehicle, someone will exploit it.
Among the more far-fetched claims was one by the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's brother to a U.K. publication last year. He told Metro UK that drug smugglers routinely use Tesla Autopilot to deliver illegal drugs with no people behind the wheel. "I heard a lot of people use it especially for countries within South America and that many people can hack nowadays the systems also to make it the way they want it," he said, providing no evidence whatsoever.
The theory behind using a self-driving vehicle as a crime surrogate seems to be that people are fallible, untrustworthy, and not always working in the best interest of their criminal overlords. If you remove a person from a criminal enterprise, you lower your risk of being caught. But that doesn't mean a robot on wheels is going to help bolster crime syndicates. If anything, they could be worse than people with loose lips.
"These anonymous vehicles, they're gonna know where they're coming from and where they're going," Robert Leale, president of CanBusHack and co-founder of the Car Hacking Village, told Car and Driver. The Village is part of the annual Def Con hacking conference. Leale noted that these vehicles leave a digital bread crumb everywhere they go. While a criminal might think twice about talking to the police if they're caught, an autonomous car "doesn't care if it rats you out," said Leale.
It's not just the fact that autonomous vehicles will hold a treasure trove of data about its movements that could lead right to any criminal. Part of what will help them succeed is a connection to the infrastructure they'll be driving through. Sensors on traffic lights, signs, and between other vehicles, as well as cellular signals that ping off local towers, all are ways to pinpoint a vehicle's exact location. You know how in crime shows the baddies always turn off their phones so the cops won't trace their movements? This is essentially the same thing but with wheels.
These scenarios involve personally owned vehicles. They don't even get into the data gold mine associated with using a ride-sharing service. Those will likely have cameras both inside and out of the cars keeping an eye on passengers and sharing all that data directly with a company's servers. They will also likely be monitored by humans if the car detects something is a bit weird. So if the computers don't rat out the criminals, humans sitting potentially hundreds of miles away will.
“It's not an ideal situation if you want to do illegal activities,” Leale told Car and Driver. “There's a huge cost and expense,” he added. The amount of work needed to circumvent all of these systems far outweighs the benefits. That's not to say it won't happen. Targeted attacks against the vehicles of individuals are still a possibility and tweaking the software of an autonomous vehicle to do things like drive through the desert or other environment where tracking is difficult is a possibility. But it'll require a lot of work and like any exploit to a system, once discovered it will be fixed by the security researchers working for automakers, suppliers, and ride-sharing companies. So these types of exploits will be used sparingly.
A larger issue is employees with access to these systems using them for either their own gain or to track and stalk individuals. There are multiple instances of people using their positions in law enforcement and at tech companies for that purpose.
Self-driving robotaxis are still in their infancy stage and relegated to predetermined areas, while personal autonomous cars won't be on the market for a very long time and will likely be far too expensive at the outset to risk using for crime. In other words, sure, you could use a self-driving car for crime, but it's not going to be better and in most cases worse than doing crimes the old-fashioned way, with people.