Security Experts:

Researchers Hijack Tesla Car by Hacking Mobile App

Researchers at Norway-based security firm Promon have demonstrated how thieves with the necessary hacking skills can track and steal Tesla vehicles through the carmaker’s Android application.

In a video released this week, experts showed how they could obtain the targeted user’s credentials and leverage the information to track the vehicle and drive it away. There are several conditions that need to be met for this attack and the victim must be tricked into installing a malicious app on their mobile phone, but the researchers believe their scenario is plausible.

According to Promon, the Tesla mobile app uses HTTP requests and an OAuth token to communicate with the Tesla server. The token is valid for 90 days and it allows users to authenticate without having to enter their username and password every time they launch the app.

The problem is that this token is stored in cleartext in the app’s sandbox folder, allowing a remote attacker with access to the device to steal the data and use it to send specially crafted requests to the server. Once they obtain this token, criminals can use it to locate the car and open its doors. In order to enable the keyless driving feature and actually steal the vehicle, they need to obtain the victim’s username and password as well.

Experts believe this can be achieved by tricking the user into installing a piece of malware that modifies the Tesla app and steals the username and password when the victim enters them in the app. According to researchers, the legitimate Tesla app can be modified using one of the many vulnerabilities affecting Android, such as the issue known as TowelRoot. The TowelRoot exploit, which allows attackers to elevate privileges to root, has been used by an Android malware dubbed Godless.

In order to get the victim to install the malicious app, the attacker can use various methods, including free Wi-Fi hotspots.

“When the Tesla owner connects to the Wi-Fi hotspot and visits a web page, he is redirected to a captive portal that displays an advertisement targeting Tesla owners. In [our] example, an app was advertised that offers the Tesla owner a free meal at the nearby restaurant. When the Tesla owner then clicks on the advertisement, he is redirected to the Google Play store where the malicious app is displayed,” experts said.


While there are multiple conditions that need to be met for the attack to work, researchers pointed out that many devices run vulnerable versions of Android and users are often tricked into installing malware onto their devices.

Promon has not disclosed any technical details about the attack method. The company says it has been working with Tesla on addressing the issues. It’s worth noting that Tesla has a bug bounty program with a maximum payout of $10,000 for each flaw found in its websites, mobile apps and vehicle hardware.

This is not the first time researchers have demonstrated that Tesla cars can be hacked remotely. A few weeks ago, experts at China-based tech company Tencent showed that they could remotely control an unmodified Tesla Model S while it was parked or on the move. Tesla quickly patched the vulnerabilities found by Tencent, but downplayed their severity, claiming that the attack was not fully remote, as suggested in a video released by experts.

SecurityWeek has reached out to Tesla for comment and will update this article if the company responds.

UPDATE. Tesla told SecurityWeek that none of the vulnerabilities used in this attack are specific to the company's products

"The report and video do not demonstrate any Tesla-specific vulnerabilities," said a Tesla spokesperson. "This demonstration shows what most people intuitively know – if a phone is hacked, the applications on that phone may no longer be secure. The researchers showed that known social engineering techniques could be employed to trick people into installing malware on their Android devices, compromising their entire phone and all apps, which also includes their Tesla app. Tesla recommends users run the latest version of their mobile operating system."

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.