Apple still hasn’t confirmed whether or not it’s working on a secret smart car. But a new patent granted to the US-based tech behemoth on 24 May suggests otherwise — and brings up questions about how susceptible to hackers the cars of the near future could be.
The patent is titled “Accessing Vehicles Using Portable Devices.” It seems to be a digital key that lives on your iPhone and unlocks or starts your car wirelessly via Bluetooth. The twist? You could also temporarily assign these powers to a secondary mobile device. For example, you could share access if you wanted to allow a family member to use the car for an afternoon.
But is all this safe?
Any data that lives on the cloud faces a security risk. But we’re not just talking about family vacation photos here. A smartphone car key like Apple’s could help carjacking hackers swipe your vehicle — or worse. As connected cars become more connected, hackers could open your garage from afar. They could even deactivate the open your front door, turn on the lights, adjust the thermostat and brew a pot of coffee.
To its credit, Apple has a history of ostensibly keeping the safety of customers’ data in mind: Earlier this year, the company denied the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s request to provide a “skeleton key” that would bypass an iPhone's security mechanisms and unlock private data. The FBI wanted such a key in order to investigate an iPhone 5C used by the gunman who, with his wife, killed 14 people and wounded more than 20 last December in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. Apple publicly refused to cooperate, on the grounds that such a “skeleton key” falling into the wrong hands would prove disastrous. (The FBI later managed to unlock the phone on its own.)
All this comes amidst a new era of car ownership. While this recent patent backs up possible plans of a rumoured iCar, Apple’s not the only company looking to connect cars to the cloud. Volvo began testing smartphone-based car keys of its own in February, and Toyota and Ford are working with Microsoft and Amazon respectively to increase interconnectivity between your auto and your home.
But whatever comes of Apple’s new patent (or its car), one thing is for sure: Cars will continue to become more technologically tied to every aspect of our lives. Tech companies need to stay viligant with each new development.
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