Digital Car Keys

Timothy R. Primrose, Mobile Forensic Expert

The 2020 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), like almost everything else in 2020, employed necessary changes due to COVID-19. The WWDC is an annual (in-person) event that Apple hosts for developers to meet Apple engineers and attend different sessions and labs. Apple also provides information about ongoing projects and upcoming releases. Due to COVID-19, WWDC became a virtual event.

On Monday, June 22, 2020, Apple held a 2-hour live stream to kick off the virtual WWDC where they revealed various new features that would be implemented in the next iOS update. One standout feature is Apple’s new “digital car key” which enables iPhone users to enter, start, and operate their cars from their smartphones. The concept is simple: program your phone, then leave your car keys at home. Apple’s goal is convenience for their consumers, providing them with a way to leave home with one less possession to worry about.

The digital car key grants users with the ability to unlock their vehicle by tapping their phone on the door. The feature utilizes near field communication (NFC) to communicate with the vehicle. Once in the driver’s seat, the phone is placed on a charging pad, which allows the vehicle operator to use the push to start functionality of the vehicle.

The digital car key can also be sent to other people via iMessage with preset permissions. The vehicle owner has the option to provide their friend with limited access to their vehicle, only allowing them to unlock their vehicle, or full access, allowing them to drive their vehicle. The first vehicle that will support the digital car key will be the 2021 BMW 5 series.

While all of this sounds cool and useful, there are a few red flags relating to reliability and security; perhaps most notable, is the question: What if the phone’s battery dies with its charger locked in the car that needs a charged phone to unlock? Or, what if the user’s phone is stolen, lost, or damaged? The digital car key can be turned off remotely via iCloud, but that requires another device to do so, and still does not remedy the fact that your car keys are at home hanging on a hook. What if your phone is hacked? Hackers could theoretically use their phone to access your vehicle.

For a variety of reasons, these and other potential factors or issues with the technology require careful planning before its rollout. Perhaps Apple has planned for these scenarios; however, those plans were not disclosed during its live stream kick-off event.

Timothy R. Primrose, Mobile Forensic Expert with DJS Associates, Inc., can be reached via email at experts@forensicDJS.com or via phone at 215-659-2010.

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