Tesla’s driving data storage system hacked by Dutch investigators

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A team of Dutch forensic researchers have decrypted Tesla’s data storage system, providing access to a trove of information that could be useful in crash investigations. (The news was first reported by Reuters.)

It’s no secret that Tesla records information about its customers’ driving behavior, both to improve its advanced driver assistance system, Autopilot, and also in the event of a crash, to provide to investigators.

But researchers at the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) discovered that Tesla’s vehicles store far more detailed data than previously known, including speed, accelerator pedal position, steering wheel angle, and brake usage. Some of this data can be stored for up to a year, the institute said.

The team was investigating a crash involving a Tesla with Autopilot in use that had rear-ended another vehicle after it braked unexpectedly. Rather than seek the data from Tesla, the Dutch investigators chose to “reverse engineer” the company’s data logs in order to “objectively” assess them.

“These data contain a wealth of information for forensic investigators and traffic accident analysts and can help with a criminal investigation after a fatal traffic accident or an accident with injury,” Francis Hoogendijk, a digital investigator at the NFI, said in a statement.

The NFI said that even though Tesla has complied with data requests from the government in the past, the company also left out a lot of data that could have proven useful. “Tesla however only supplies a specific subset of signals, only the ones requested, for a specific timeframe, whereas the log files contain all the recorded signals,” the NFI’s report said.

The news of the hack could have implications for US investigators who are probing a dozen incidents of crashes involving Tesla vehicles and emergency vehicles while Autopilot is in use. A spokesperson for the National Traffics Highway Safety Administration did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Tesla encrypts its data to protect it from rival manufacturers. Tesla owners can request their own data from the company, including camera footage, in the event of a crash. Tesla also runs Autopilot in something it calls “shadow mode” that allows the company to gather statistical data on false positives and false negatives. In shadow mode, the car isn’t taking any action, but it registers when it would have taken action — which allows the company’s engineering team to see if the autonomous mode would have avoided crashes when they take place.

The Dutch team said it was helpful to have a broader scope of data from Tesla’s vehicles, especially as cars become more like other digital products with the ability to log and store important information.

“It would be good if this data would become available more often for forensic investigations,” Hoogendijk said. “Now that we know what kind of data can be obtained from a Tesla, certain data can be requested even more specifically for the purpose of finding the truth after an accident.”

Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment. The company dissolved its press office and hasn’t responded to media inquiries in over two years.

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