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$10,000 bounty on Model S hacks entices tinkerers, aggravates Tesla

As cars become increasingly digital, vehicle security is no longer just about locks and alarms, instead the focus is on lines of code. So is it possible to “hack” into a modern car and insert malicious code? That is what a competition to hack a Tesla at the SyScan conference in Beijing aims to find out. If one of the hackers does succeed, they walk away with $10,000.

The Tesla Model S has been chosen not just because of its techie cred, but also because Tesla has actually invested real resources in digital security. In fact, as we have previously covered Tesla hired “hacker princess” Kristen Paget away from Apple. Tesla has also pioneered an open vulnerability disclosure program, so anyone can report flaws in the car’s security. A first among automakers.

Still, Tesla isn’t too excited about the contest. Forbes reports that the Palo Alto based firm is neither involved with the contest nor very supportive. That is understandable, given that any success at the SyScan conference will make Tesla look bad, even if a Model S might in fact be significantly more challenging to hack than another product.

Even so, a successful hack is pretty likely. As Forbes has previously reported DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has already been researching inserting malicious code into cars; and the news isn’t good, because apparently it isn’t that hard.

Two researchers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek were able to remotely control cars from Ford and Toyota, activating the brakes and interfering with steering. Another reason to not love electric power steering.

With that in mind it is unlikely that the SyScan competition will produce good news about the Tesla’s security, but the competition itself might be the best news possible.

Digital cars aren’t going away, in fact with widespread sales of autonomous cars on the horizon cars are about to get much more dependent on computers, and potentially networking. With that in mind, digital security may end up being a major issue in the industry, and one automakers are loathe to discuss. With that in mind, any attention drawn to the issue, like that from the SyScan conference may end up being critical to ensure that cars in the digital age are safe and secure.