As motor vehicles connect to the ever expanding and never-ending Internet of Things (IoT), opportunities abound for hackers and cyber criminals to tap into consumer, commercial, and possibly law-enforcement vehicles. With the emergence of autonomous cars, those opportunities for dangerous shenanigans and hijinks increase exponentially.
Most rational-minded individuals will agree that tampering with a vehicle, regardless to what degree as even the most insignificant distraction can incur fatalities, should be viewed as a serious crime. To what extent that crime should be punishable however is up for debate. For example, if certain proposed legislation is passed in Michigan, hacking a connected vehicle could get one life in the slammer.
Senators Mike Kowall and Ken Horn sponsor a bill that will make it a felony to “intentionally access or cause access to be made to an electronic system of a motor vehicle to willfully destroy, damage, impair, alter or gain unauthorized control of the motor vehicle.” Though noble in its attempt to protect, the wording is quite tedious and begs far too much for interpretation, obviously to give lawyers loopholes to dance through.
It stands to reason that gaining access to a vehicle that one does not own without the permission of the owner is illegal pretty much anywhere, regardless of whether by key or hacking over the web. So that’s already a law.
Why do people gain access to vehicles they don’t own? The reasons are several: to steal the vehicle, steal what’s inside the vehicle, do physical damage to the vehicle, a.k.a., vandalize, or possibly to rescue an imprisoned child or pet, wake up a sleeping passenger locked in the car with the motor running, or rescue someone within suffering from a medical condition, Surely there are other reasons. Traditionally, in most of these cases, hacking, with the exception of maybe a coat hanger or glass cutter, is not involved.
Using programming skills to gain access to a vehicle is a completely different event. Doing so requires the tools (computer, app, programming knowledge, software knowledge), desire or premeditation of the act, and a reason, which most likely is for ill intent, i.e. practical joke or worse. Illegally accessing a vehicle while it’s in motion and taking over control could be construed as attempted murder, or criminal negligence at least. In other areas, these crimes also carry the possible penalty of life behind bars.
The ability to hack into a vehicle does have its upside. For example, if police are given the ability to access common street vehicles via a tablet or laptop, they could take control of car that’s being driven erratically by an intoxicated or medically-compromised person. High-speed chases could be terminated before they initiate. Of course these scenarios would cause news and media persons to look elsewhere for thrilling, breaking-news stories.
But getting back to the life sentence, is this justified or is it extreme? Should it be executed only in cases where injury, death, and/or extreme property damage is incurred, or should it be a mandatory sentence? Is that a life sentence with or without chances for parole? How about if the inmate takes a three-hour safe driving course, could that get the sentence commuted to say a year, or community service, or erased? What do you think?
I think it would be ironic for a car hacker to go to prison. He or she would be making the license plates for vehicles they would be hacking into if they were on the outside. ~MD