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Elon Musk’s top cybersecurity concern: Preventing a fleet-wide hack of Teslas

Jul 17, 20174 mins

Tesla is working to make sure a fleet-wide attack can't occur, Musk told attendees at the National Governors Association

“AI is a fundamental, existential risk for human civilization,” Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk said at the National Governors Association summer meeting. He doesn’t think people “fully appreciate that.” AI and a possible robot apocalypse is just one topic covered by Musk, and we’ll get back to that; but since a Tesla is “like a laptop on wheels,” Musk also talked about his top cybersecurity concern: a fleet-wide hack of Teslas.

“I think one of the biggest risks for autonomous vehicles is somebody achieving a fleet-wide hack,” Musk said in response to a question from North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum. “In principle, if somebody was able to hack, say, all of the autonomous Teslas, they could, say—I mean just as a prank—they could say like ‘send them all to Rhode Island’ from across the United States. And that would be like, well OK, that would be the end of Tesla. And there would be a lot of angry people in Rhode Island, that’s for sure.”

Preventing a fleet-wide hack is “pretty fundamental.” In fact, he said, “It is my top concern from a security standpoint—that Tesla is making sure that a fleet-wide hack or any vehicle-specific hack can’t occur.” Musk added:

“So, we gotta make super sure that a fleet-wide hack is basically impossible and that if people are in the car, that they have override authority on whatever the car is doing. So, if the car is doing something wacky, you can press a button that no amount of software can override—that will ensure that you gain control of the vehicle and cut the link to the servers.”

He touched on Tesla’s multiple subsystems and specialized encryption, “so even if somebody would gain access to the car, they cannot gain access to the powertrain or to the braking system.” He says preventing a fleet-wide or vehicle-specific hack will be even a “bigger challenge for the other car companies.”

Then Musk compared the fleet-wide hack problem to cell phones.

“It’s kind of crazy today that we live quite comfortably in a world that George Orwell would have thought is super crazy. Like we all carry a phone with a microphone that could be turned on really at any time without our knowledge, with a GPS that knows our position, and a camera and, well, kind of all of our personal information. We do this willingly. And it’s kind of wild to think that is the case. So, Apple and Google kind of have the same challenge of making sure there cannot be a fleet-wide hack—or a system-wide hack—of phones.”

Musk: AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization

Musk’s opinions of AI are well known. At the governors’ meeting on Saturday, he said, “On the artificial intelligence front, I have exposure to the very most cutting-edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it.”

“I keep sounding the alarm bell,” he added, “but until people see like robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, you know, because it seems so ethereal.”

He again stressed, “I think we should be really concerned about AI.”

When it comes to people losing their jobs to AI, Musk said “transport will be one of the first to go fully autonomous,” but in the end “the robots will do everything.”

“AI is a rare case where I think we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive because I think by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late,” he said.

Musk explained that regulation usually only happens after something “really bad happens” and it “takes forever.”

Unlike a plane crash or bad food, which are harmful to the specific individuals involved, AI “poses a risk to society as a whole.” He suggested that AI “could start a war by doing fake news and spoofing email accounts and fake press releases, and just by manipulating information. Or, indeed—as some companies already claim they can do—by getting people to say anything that the machine wants.”

Musk warned, “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”

If you can find the time, I highly recommend watching the video in full to see all Musk had to say.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.