Tesla infotainment systems are a marvel to behold. Among other things, they display Netflix or YouTube videos, run Spotify, connect to Wi-Fi, and of course store phone numbers of contacts. But those benefits require storing heaps of personal information that an amateur researcher found can reveal owners’ most sensitive data.
The researcher, who described himself as a “Tesla tinkerer that’s curious about how things work,” recently gained access to 13 Tesla MCUs—short for media control units—that were removed from electric vehicles during repairs and refurbishments. Each one of the devices stored a trove of sensitive information despite being retired. Examples included phone books from connected cell phones, call logs containing hundreds of entries, recent calendar entries, Spotify and W-Fi passwords stored in plaintext, locations for home, work, and all places navigated to, and session cookies that allowed access to Netflix and YouTube (and attached Gmail accounts).
The researcher, who goes by the handle greentheonly, obtained 12 of the units off of eBay from pages like this one. He got the other one from a friend. Based on conversations he’s had, he believes Tesla official procedure calls for removed MCUs to be sent intact back to Tesla and for damaged units to be hammered down to ensure that connectors are sufficiently damaged and then thrown into the trash.
Tesla representatives didn’t return an email asking what the company’s policy is for handling MCUs that are removed from vehicles.
Greentheonly’s discovery reveals a risk posed not just to Tesla owners but drivers of virtually any vehicle that has onboard devices that store personal data or provide remote tracking. It’s up to individuals to perform factory resets when selling a car, returning a rental vehicle, or having an infotainment system serviced. Even then, there’s no guarantee that previously stored data can’t be recovered.