Industry News

Huge prizes up for grabs for anyone who can hack a Tesla

If you’re going to the CanSecWest conference in Vancouver this March you’ll have the chance to participate in the Pwn2Own ethical hacking contest. As usual hackers will be working hard to crack the security of browsers and operating systems from Apple, Microsoft, Google, Mozilla, Oracle and VMware.

But this things are a little different. Because this year, for the first time ever, a popular car will be amongst the products hackers will be trying to exploit.

A sacrificial Tesla Model 3 will be on-site, inviting hackers to win big in Pwn2Own’s new automotive category.

The top Tesla-hacking prize up for grabs is $250,000 for anyone who finds a way to run unauthorised code on three of the high-tech car’s critical components: the gateway, the autopilot, or the VCSEC.

As Thomas Brewster at Forbes explains, the gateway is a key piece of hardware in the Tesla through which data communications flow.

The VCSEC, meanwhile, controls security features such as the alarm, and access to the charge port and trunk.

And autopilot? Well, you know what the Tesla’s autopilot is. And just how important it is that that particular famous part of the vehicle’s infrastructure is not vulnerable to compromise.

If that’s too tricky, then there is still a handsome $100,000 waiting for anyone who can subvert Tesla’s key fob (or phone used as a key) to run unauthorised code, unlock the vehicle, or start its engine.

Smaller prizes are on offer for researchers who discover a way to run code on the Tesla’s modem, tuner, WiFi, Bluetooth, or infotainment systems.

According to the Pwn2Own competition organisers, participants eager to win the “Modem or Tuner”, “Wi-Fi or Bluetooth”, and “Gateway, Autopilot, or VCSEC” prizes must achieve code execution “by communicating with a rogue base station or other malicious entity.”

Meanwhile, attacks on the infotainment system need to be launched from the on-site Tesla, and must achieve code execution by browsing to malicious content.

Oh, and did I mention the first successful researcher will have the opportunity to drive a brand new Tesla Model 3 away at the end of the competition?

Truth be told, you’ll most likely already have access to a Tesla to experiment on if you’re going to be in with any chance of successfully hacking the one at Pwn2Own.

The good news is that if you are thinking of hacking your Tesla, as of last year you no longer have to worry about voiding your warranty if you accidentally brick your vehicle. In September 2018, the company confirmed it was supporting “safe harbor” which legitimises good-faith security research, and allows owners to hack their own cars provided they remain within its bug bounty rules.

Other companies have in the past attempted to censor the publication of security research using legal threats.

Fuller details of the Pwn2Own competition, and add-on prizes for achieving persistence after a reboot, can be found in the Pwn2Own blog post.

About the author

Graham CLULEY

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, researcher and public speaker. He has been working in the computer security industry since the early 1990s, having been employed by companies such as Sophos, McAfee and Dr Solomon's. He has given talks about computer security for some of the world's largest companies, worked with law enforcement agencies on investigations into hacking groups, and regularly appears on TV and radio explaining computer security threats.

Graham Cluley was inducted into the InfoSecurity Europe Hall of Fame in 2011, and was given an honorary mention in the "10 Greatest Britons in IT History" for his contribution as a leading authority in internet security.

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