2012 Ford Mustang equipped with SYNC AppLink

2012 Ford Mustang equipped with SYNC AppLink

Last week, a certain alarmist antivirus software manufacturer made headlines when it tried to raise concerns about the hacking of on-board computers in automobiles. In contrast, folks at the TechCrunch Hackathon calmly demonstrated some much more viable -- and interesting -- tweaks to the Ford SYNC system.

As you might recall, MacAfee's report entitled "Caution: Malware Ahead" attempted to make the case that today's vehicles could be remotely hacked (as we often see in cases of cyberterrorism). The problem is that in order for baddies to break into most automobiles' on-board computers, they first need physical access to the cars. In our book, that's not hacking, that's just high-tech tampering.

Attendees at last weekend's Hackathon took a much more sanguine tone. Rather than raising alarms, they demonstrated the fairly awesome things that could be done with SYNC -- and they did it with Ford's blessing.

To be fair, we wouldn't call this a case of straight-up "hacking" either, since Ford supplied the "hackers" with an API -- basically, the keys to the SYNC's backdoor. Still, that doesn't diminish the impressive effects that coders were able to achieve.

In one instance, hackers were able to line up the popular music-streaming service Spotify with SYNC, controlling it with voice commands. Details are still a little fuzzy, but it appears that hackers achieved their objective by using SYNC AppLink, which allows drivers to maneuver through smartphone apps using voice controls when the smartphone in question is synched with SYNC. (Confused yet?) In other words, participants didn't actually pull Spotify into SYNC, as Ford has done with Spotify's rival, Pandora; rather, they created a means of accessing the Spotify app on their smartphones using voice commands instead of manual controls.

All parties eagerly point out that this doesn't represent an official partnership between Ford and Spotify. What it shows, however, is that SYNC is a robust and flexible system, capable of being wonked to suit a range of interests and needs. We look forward to future iterations of the SYNC software -- and more friendly hacks, too.