Reader Question: Disconnecting a Car?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Kevin asks: Back when Edward Snowden disclosed info about remote control capabilities in cars after circa 2005, I have wanted to locate and disable/remove cellphone capable 3g (and above) antenna communications. I have looked thru your past Q&A on antennas, but I don’t see any specific to what Snowden had spoken of. I got the impression it was a 3g antenna built into the car’s computer. I have read of the “fin” antennas from your previous Q&A which could function for that purpose, but I thought they were built into the computers. Am I wrong?

Our car stereo had the GPS built in, and when it died, I just removed it, and figured there was no GPS based location data – but the cellphone pings still could provide rough location info. I want to make sure there are no other “hackable/trackable” communications. I appreciate the info provided thru the David Knight show! Thanks!

My reply: My understanding is the “hackability” is a function of the connectedness – i.e., the car is designed to be able to receive updates to its operating systems – like a cell phone – and send/receive diagnostic (and other) information via satellite or (more recently) WiFi.

Since almost every major function in a modern car is now controlled electronically – by the ECU, its primary computer – this means that having the ability to control the ECU confers control over things such as throttle control and even braking (in cars with automated emergency braking, another electronic system that can apply the brakes without the driver applying them).

And – more passive but no less creepy – data about you is being sent to parties unknown. This potentially includes even conversations inside the car as there are microphones built into almost every new car – part of the “concierge/infotainment” or voice command system.

The send/receive mechanism is the bundled antenna – the shark fin you see on the roof of almost every new car.

So, how to disconnect?

If you remove/disable the antenna, the car will no longer be able to send/receive data but the downside is the secondary systems such as the stereo and pretty much everything that appears on the LCD touchscreen will no longer work. It is also possible doing so may violate the “user agreement” that comes with the car and affect service/warranty. In the case of some cars – Teslas, for instance – disconnecting can result in the car becoming inert or losing functions because of the lack of “updates.”

The best way to disconnect, therefore, is to avoid any car made after the early 2000s. There is no exact line in the sand, but this is a pretty good general cut-off point as most of these will not have WiFi and many don’t have GPS. Therefore, removing the antenna ought to disconnect the car.

Most cars made after 2010 have WiFi and so are so “wired” as to be hopelessly connected. Avoid them. Especially try to avoid cars with electronic throttle control and systems such as lane keep assist, automated emergency braking and  especially any form of automated/self-driving capability.

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Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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