Eh Dude, Your Car’s Leaking. No, Not Oil: Data

The online magazine The Intercept recently published an interesting piece entitled YOUR CAR IS SPYING ON YOU, AND A CBP CONTRACT SHOWS THE RISKS which I highly recommend. If you didn’t know it, yes, your car does generate a lot of data and even downloads some of it from mobile devices which connect to it over time. In a sense, nowadays, a car is a sort of mobile computer, shock full of data. What may not be apparent to the layperson is that a car in this day and age generates and retains A LOT of data pretty much any time a human interacts with it.

Though the article at issue focuses on the use of your vehicle’s data by law enforcement (when investigating crime), if you ask me, the true story actually goes quite beyond that, including the use of such data by private businesses.

Surprisingly, accessing the data held by a modern-day vehicle isn’t actually this complicated—you just need the know-how and the right tool. If you’re really determined to do so, plugging into a car these days and extracting troves of data is apparently pretty straightforward. For example, in case of accident or other incident with an insured vehicle, the insurer may send an investigator armed with the right tools to download the car’s data, which can then be analyzed at leisure, including to try and find out why the insured’s claim should be denied. Almost any car on the road today includes such capabilities and functionalities akin to a plane’s black box.

The article specifically discusses one particular tool called iVe, a product by a company called Berla. The iVe toolbox includes both hardware and software components, and even has its own mobile app, so as to make things easier for investigators in the field.

This particular tool may be used to siphon all data contained in a vehicle’s circuits, for example to further an investigation either by the police or an insurer. The product then facilitates identifying, accessing and analyzing various types of information found in modern-day vehicles—you’d be surprised how much there may be. The company’s website claims its product can be used to uncover things like:

  • Geolocation data, including what roads or streets the vehicle was driven on, etc.;
  • Events which the vehicle encountered and recorded through any of its sensors;
  • Media files (content) that a user downloaded or accessed using the on-board infotainment system (music, podcasts, etc.);
  • A list of the specific mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle over time, etc.

In practice, it seems one may even go so far as to obtain a copy of the list of contacts from mobile devices that users connected to the vehicle, the history of SMS and emails on those devices, the list of incoming and outgoing calls, the list of songs played through the on-board infotainment system, etc.

Incident which a car records may, of course, include accident-like events, but also things that the average driver may not realize are being recorded, including:

  • The speed at which the car is travelling at any given moment;
  • The changing of gears and the engine’s RPMs at any given moment;
  • Sudden acceleration or breaking;
  • The fact that the headlights were either turned on or off;
  • The opening or closing of doors; etc.

So, you were listing to PARANOID by Black Sabbath and texting your friend Mike while driving down this country road at 163 km/h, and then lost control? Yeah, your insurer can find out, for sure. In fact, almost any action taken by the human operator of the vehicle may be recorded (even more so if you plugged in your cellphone), something the average driver may not realize. The fact that this is generally not clearly disclosed to the public does play into the hands of insurers and law enforcement, as it does make their job somewhat easier when investigating incidents involving vehicles.

If it may provide some measure of comfort to you, iVe does not come cheap. The article to which we’re linking above mentions purchasing that tool for tens of thousands of dollars. At that price, your insurer (or its investigator) probably bought one, but not your next-door neighbour, even if he’s really into cars.

This is a good example of the behind-the-scene changes turning everyday objects, like cars, into electronic gizmos. If you thought a car was still just a car, you are very much mistaken it seems. In today’s world, accessing the data in that car can reveal a whole lot about you, your driving habits, including where you’ve taken that car, and how. And contrary to what some people may think, it does NOT require a whole team of CSI-like investigators merely to connect to your car.

Right to Repair: Yes… Perhaps… Someday

The BBC had a good article on Friday about the right-to-repair movement, starting with the story of a Canadian student turned cellphone repairman, first for himself and then his classmates. It’s worth reading.

We’re hearing more and more about the right to repair, or in any case about a will to try and get manufacturers of electronics to stop the planned obsolescence of their products. Although the movement is starting to make some headway, the trend remains for manufacturers to produce goods as cheaply as possible without giving any thought to allowing for eventual repairs. Today, as it’s been since the 1950s, smart manufacturers want a product that customers are satisfied with and then replace, ideally with the same make. The goal is to create products that are good enough to get good reviews (and accompanying sales) which the typical consumer will not mind upgrading not too far down the line.

Of course, this trend is doing nothing to help the planet, notably because of the natural resources extracted at great cost and quickly sent to landfills once the product gets discarded, often after only 2 or 3 years. Suffice it to say we can do better.

Proponents of the right to repair are pressuring the industry to start changing its model, so as to start making products designed to make repairs easy, but also that CAN be repaired. In practice, this requires making information and parts available to customers who’d rather repair their product than replace it outright.

Europe is making some progress in enacting laws that will start nudging companies in that direction, but we’re seeing little movement on this front in North America. Though Canada briefly contemplated a private bill about the right to repair (in 2019), not much is happening since, notwithstanding the growing demand from consumers.

Finally, on a related note, a friend recently shared a good piece in Wired about the Taylor ice cream machine at McDonald’s restaurants. It seems the machine at issue is imposed on franchisees who wish to offer the McFlurry desert, along with an onerous maintenance contract and little or no information allowing them to maintain the machine. It seems that franchisees are now attempting to diagnose and better control the machines (including by relying on third-party custom products to do it) which the franchisor’s not too happy about. It’s another good read.

Alleged Flaws in Cellebrite UFED May Allow Throwing Out of Locked Smartphones Evidence

It is inevitable in today’s world that law enforcement is sometimes faced with mobile devices that a suspect locked prior to their seizure by authorities. Locking your devices is good common sense security: This goes for you and I, and, yes, for criminals. As a result, the police will sometimes need to break the encryption on such mobile devices in order to get to the data within, either for investigative or evidentiary purposes. That’s when tools such as Cellebrite UFED come into play. By using UFED, law enforcement can break into otherwise secure devices, such as iPhone smartphones, and get to the data within.

Unfortunately for the prosecution side, someone recently obtained access to UFED and analyzed its security features. These were found to be, shall we say, lacking. Indeed, according to Moxie Marlinspike (creator of the Signal app), ironically, cybersecurity isn’t exactly UFED’s strong suit. In fact, according to his report, after looking at the product, he believes this tool’s security is so weak that even scanning a booby-trapped device may result in an alteration of the data that was or is later extracted using UFED.

In short, in their efforts to secure some evidence, it seems that some police forces are using a tool whose reliability may be called into question. Indeed, if the tool at issue cannot be counted on to provide data that is a reliable record of what really was found in a particular device, should such evidence not be thrown out?

Legally, the fact that a tool used to extract information is prone to tampering may not bode well for convictions obtained on the basis of the resulting evidence, at least if the vulnerabilities reported by Moxie Marlinspike can be substantiated. Some American defense attorneys intend to argue against convictions secured by the authorities based on evidence extracted from locked smartphones. This could lead to the need for new trials in some cases.

UFED is apparently used by many law-enforcement agencies throughout the world. We don’t yet know how many convictions this inconvenient revelation may eventually allow defence attorneys to call into question.

This is yet another example of the perpetually problematic relationship between cybersecurity and the law.