When Your Used Car is a Little Too ‘Mobile’
Many modern vehicles let owners use the Internet or a mobile device to control the car’s locks, track location and performance data, and start the engine. But who exactly owns that control is not always clear when these smart cars are sold or leased anew. Here’s the story of one former electric vehicle owner who discovered he could still gain remote, online access to his old automobile years after his lease ended.
Mathew Marulla began leasing a Ford Focus electric vehicle in 2013, but turned the car back in to Ford at the end of his lease in 2016. So Marulla was surprised when he recently received an email from Ford.com stating that the clock in his car was set incorrectly.
Out of curiosity, Marulla decided to check if his old MyFordMobile.com credentials from 2016 still worked. They did, and Marulla was presented with an online dashboard showing the current location of his old ride and its mileage statistics.
The dashboard also allowed him to remotely start the vehicle, as well as lock and unlock its doors.
“It was a three-year lease from Ford and I turned it in to Ford four years ago, so Ford definitely knows I am no longer the owner,” Marulla said, noting that the dashboard also included historic records showing where the Focus had been driven in days prior.
“I can track its movements, see where it plugs in,” he said. “Now I know where the current owner likely lives, and if I watch it tomorrow I can probably figure out where he works. I have not been the owner of this vehicle for four years, Ford knows this, yet they took no action whatsoever to remove me as the owner in this application.”
Asked to comment on Marulla’s experience, a spokesperson for Ford said all Ford dealerships are supposed to perform a “master reset” as part of their used car checklist prior to the resale of a vehicle. A master reset (carried out via the vehicle’s SYNC infotainment screen by a customer or dealer) disassociates the vehicle from all current accounts.
“A master reset cleans phone data and removes previous Ford Pass and My Ford Mobile connections,” the company said in a statement released to KrebsOnSecurity. “Once complete, a previous owner will no longer be able to connect to the vehicle when they log in to My Ford Mobile or Ford Pass.”
As Marulla’s experience shows, if you’re in the market for a used car you should probably check whether it’s possible to reset the previous owner’s control and/or information before purchasing it, or at least ask the dealership to help you ensure this gets done once the purchase is made.
And if you’re thinking of selling your car, it’s a good idea to clear your personal data from the vehicle first. As the U.S. Federal Trade Commission advises, some cars have a factory reset option that will return the settings and data to their original state.
“But even after a factory reset, you may still have work to do,” reads an FTC consumer privacy notice from 2018. “For example, your old car may still be connected to subscription services like satellite radio, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, and data services. You need to cancel these services or have them transferred to your new vehicle.”
By the way, this issue of de-provisioning is something of a sticky wicket, and it potentially extends well beyond vehicles to a number of other “smart” devices that end up being resold or refurbished. This is doubly so for Internet-connected/capable devices whose design may give the previous owner a modicum of access to or control over the device in question regardless of what steps the new owner takes to limit such access (particularly some types of security cameras).