Tesla Model S vulnerable to hackers, kind of

Dell engineer says REST API has serious vulnerabilities.

It’s the curse of the connected car – once it’s linked to the Internet, it’s, well, on the Internet. In the case of the Tesla Model S, this means that malicious hackers could, in theory, control some functions of the vehicle and even track it without the owner’s knowledge.

Tesla offers Android and iPhone apps for Model S owners, which can be used to check the vehicle’s battery, track its location and status, and tweak several other settings, like climate control and the sunroof. It can also be used to unlock the doors on the Model S.

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Dell senior engineer George Reese says the REST API used by Tesla to provide access for Android and iPhone apps has several fairly serious security flaws, which could offer a way in for unscrupulous hackers.

According to an article written by Reese for O’Reilly, Tesla appears to have broken from accepted best practice when designing the API for the Model S.

“It’s flawed in a way that makes no sense. Tesla ignored most conventions around API authentication and wrote their own. As much as I talk about the downsides to OAuth (a standard for authenticating consumers of REST APIs—Twitter uses it), this scenario is one that screams for its use,” he wrote.

However, Reese notes, this is merely a potential attack vector, not one that could be immediately exploited. That said, a compromised website – particularly one designed to provide “value-added services” via the API to Tesla drivers – could prove highly damaging.

“I can … honk their horns, flash their lights, and open and close the sunroof. While none of this is catastrophic, it can certainly be surprising and distracting while someone is driving,” Reese wrote.

Automotive hacking has been posited by experts for some time, and several presentations at this year’s Defcon detailed fairly comprehensive methods of compromising some models.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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