If you’re like us, your car is your personal sanctuary. The driver’s seat is positioned exactly to your liking, the climate control is set to the optimal temperature, and your phone instantly pairs with the car's infotainment so you can bring your favorite playlists and podcasts on your road trip. Although this level of personalization and convenience is something we enjoy on a daily basis, these technological advancements also mean our cars store a lot of information about us and can pose a privacy threat. Here's how your information can become vulnerable to hackers and the steps you can take to protect yourself.

Cars are Getting Smarter

Personal data in car infotainment
The more connected our vehicles become, the greater the privacy risk.

With each new model release, in-vehicle technology gets smarter and more personalized. In fact, a goal for many automakers is to make their vehicle infotainment systems match the personalization of the driver's smartphone. Think about it - your vehicle probably knows your home location and the GPS coordinates of the places you drive to the most. The infotainment also stores your contacts and keeps a record of who you reach out to and how. Many vehicles are offered with a WiFi hotspot and can even join your home WiFi network.

That's a lot of personal data being stored in your vehicle's infotainment system. While it normally shouldn't pose too much risk, the security threat is something you should be aware of, especially when it comes time to sell the vehicle. Privacy protection is also a concern if you frequently drive rental cars or borrow vehicles from car-sharing companies.

What are the Threats?

Tesla infotainment system
Tesla's infotainment systems have turned up on eBay with the previous owners' personal data. (image: Tesla)

The good news is that while the car is in your possession, the danger is minimal. To access your personal information off the system, hackers would need special skills, and they would usually need to remove the infotainment system from the vehicle's dashboard. The real threat comes into play when you go to sell your car. According to CNN Business, a cybersecurity expert reported finding 4 used Tesla infotainment systems for sale on eBay, and all of them had the previous owners' information right there for the taking. The information included the drivers' home addresses and WiFi passwords which opens up a slew of privacy concerns. 

tesla screen

Tesla's systems aren't the only ones that have turned up on eBay loaded with personal data. Infotainment systems containing previous owners' data have been found for sale online from brands like Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. Essentially, any vehicle sold with an infotainment screen can leave the previous driver's data out in the open.

Another risk factor is the information that you leave in rental cars when you connect your smartphone to the car's system. Although hacker activity or identity theft isn't prevalent in infotainment systems now, it can become more of a concern with new technological advances. Justin Schorr, president of vehicle forensics firm, DJS Associates told CNN Business, "everything that can be used for a nefarious purpose, will eventually be found by a nefarious person and used for a nefarious purpose. If you pair your phone with a rental car, and that car gets in a crash two years later, personal information about you could be pulled off it."

How to Protect Your Privacy

Bringing a car to a mechanic
Always bring your vehicle to a mechanic you trust, and have your dealer wipe the data before you sell. 

One simple solution to protect your privacy is to avoid connecting your phone to your vehicle's infotainment system altogether. In this day and age, however, this option is neither realistic nor convenient. Luckily, there more reasonable actions you can take. Since mechanics can access your car's system when doing repairs, always take your car into a shop you know and trust. Your information is most vulnerable when you sell your car, so make sure to do a factory reset to clear your information before making the sale. For extra assurance, take the vehicle to the dealer and have them wipe your personal information.

car mechanic data extraction
Your mechanic can extract data from your car, and so can hackers.

When it comes to rental cars, remember to delete any personal data you linked to the infotainment before returning the vehicle. According to Garrett McManaway, chief information security officer for computing and information technology at Wayne State University, “the easiest way to protect your privacy is to avoid using these features altogether, but given today's connected world, that is rarely possible. Taking a few minutes before returning any rented car to delete your data is the next best thing. It is the modern equivalent of remembering to eject your favorite disc from the CD player.