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Joshua Siegel

Last week, Michigan Sens. Mike Kowall and Ken Horn proposed bills 927 and 928 which make “car hacking” a felony punishable by life imprisonment.

One bill explains that “a person shall not intentionally access or cause access to be made to an electronic system of a motor vehicle to willfully destroy, damage, impair, alter, or gain unauthorized control of the motor vehicle,” while the other describes “(the) access of electronic systems of (a) motor vehicle to obtain data or control of (that ) vehicle” as a felony.

The language used in these bills is troublingly vague. What entity authorizes access? Is any electronic alteration a felony? Since when is accessing data from one’s own vehicle a crime sentenced equivalently to murder or rape?

Under the proposed legislation, simply accessing information about a check engine light could subject a vehicle owner to criminal charges. Commonly available diagnostic devices, like some sold at local stores, might become felony accessories. This legislation has the potential to dramatically limit the control an owner has over his or her own car.

Restricting electronic data access additionally inhibits innovation. As a researcher exploring vehicle safety, efficiency and reliability enhancement through connectivity, I reverse engineer vehicle networks to identify opportunities for advancement.

Bills 927 and 928 will dramatically restrict automotive application research and development in Michigan. These bills could spell the demise of automotive innovation in Detroit. The language used makes it impossible for smaller players to enter the automotive supply stream.

The reality is that while “good guys” will heed the law, the “bad guys” will continue to gain access to doors negligent individuals leave unlocked. The solution to vehicle insecurity is designed-in, like encrypted communications, rather than legislated. To suggest otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the realities of an evolving technology landscape. A more fruitful use of the legislature’s time would be to incentivize cyber security innovation.

While ensuring automotive network security is a laudable goal, the proposed legislation is not representative of a solution serving the public. Rather, it is protective of the largest players in an industry that has proved reluctant to innovate in securing its own products.

Without clarification allowing researchers and individuals unfettered access to their vehicles’ electronic networks, residents of Michigan will be unable to participate in and benefit from the coming automotive technological revolution.

Passing these bills as they stand will lead to a future plagued by vehicles riddled with preventable security vulnerabilities and limits the great potential automobiles have to usher in a better future for Michigan and beyond.

Joshua Sigel, a Ph.D. Candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the Founder of CarKnow, LLC.