Dubai: Why the teenager who hacked Teslas wants to move to the Emirate

Tech genius aims to make the cyber world a safer space


Sherouk Zakaria

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Published: Wed 11 May 2022, 1:21 PM

Last updated: Wed 11 May 2022, 9:26 PM

He’s 19 and ‘wants to change the world’ after coming to Dubai by end 2022. Nothing out of the ordinary there you’d say. After all didn’t we all dream of ‘changing the world’ in our youth?

But then David Colombo is not your ordinary, pimple-faced teen. The 19-year-old who began coding at 10, already owns a company and is a respected cyber security expert. But his eternal claim to fame came this January when he hacked more than 25 Tesla cars in 13 countries out of ‘curiousity’. “I could have easily gone ahead and stolen a Tesla,” he says nonchalantly.

That feat made the world sit up and take notice of the genius — and also the pressing issue of cyber threat.

Not just Tesla, the teen even found vulnerabilities in the systems at major entities such as the US Department of Defense, and RedBull, among others.

Worry not - the techpreneur who now wants to fight the bad guys in the digital world, see’s Dubai as the centre of it all, because, as he says: “I’m motivated to change the world, and Dubai shares those aspirations”.

Speaking to Khaleej Times from his hometown of Dinkelsbühl in Germany, the young CEO and founder of Colombo Technology Cyber Security said he was thrilled to see the future in action in Dubai during his recent visit as a speaker at the World Government Summit (WGS). “I felt like I’m in Silicon Valley where everyone, including government officials, were talking about technology,” he said. “Having decision-makers and key personalities listen to a young person like me reflected the government’s faith in youth as the drivers of the future.”

Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was among the attendees of the teenager’s keynote session at the WGS.

The teenager, who aims to move to Dubai by end of this year, said it has been “a relief” to find a place that shares his aspirations of creating a better future — a place where he can achieve his goal of securing governments and private organisations against cyber threats.

“I’m already motivated to change the world, and I can do it for the next 60 years. Dubai is the place to achieve my goals and create an impact because this is what I ultimately want to do.”

The Tesla hack

Colombo came under the global spotlight earlier in January when he hijacked the autonomous Tesla cars and ran some commands remotely such as unlocking doors, honking the horns, opening the windows and even initiating keyless driving. “The only thing I wasn’t able to do was take over the steering, accelerating, or braking. But I could have easily gone ahead and stolen a Tesla.”

The hack, he said, happened by accident – and curiosity. He was performing a security audit for a company in France when he came across a open-source software and found a vulnerability in the code that gave him access to TeslaMate, a self-hosted logging tool that stores vehicle data.

He took to Twitter to announce the stunt, bringing attention to the system’s vulnerability. “I wanted to get it fixed because I don’t want hackers with malicious intent to exploit that vulnerability and control the Teslas.”

Colombo said the global attention presented a great opportunity to highlight the pressing issue of cyber security, especially with the rapid growth of digitization and internet connectivity.

“In the future, we will have smart homes, cities, roads and infrastructure. This increased connectivity brings higher vulnerability to cyber threats, which could have detrimental effects in the future.”

Cybersecurity, he said, must be at the core of governments and private companies going forward to ensure the digital world is accessible and safe. The key factor behind making the cyber world a safer space is by developing the right workforce.

“The facilities are available worldwide, but there’s still a need for the skills and manpower that will secure the future,” said Colombo.

Turning passion into a message

Colombo started coding at the age of 10 before diving into cybersecurity. “I found myself entering a new world when I got my first laptop and got hooked to the versatility and diversity of the internet.”

He was 15 when he received a permission from the German chamber of commerce to attend school two days a week and spend the rest of his time learning more about the field of cybersecurity. He then started his own company - Colombo Technology – to improve the global cybersecurity landscape.

Since then, the self-taught tech genius helped detect various security vulnerabilities at major entities like RedBull and the US Department of Defense.

“I thought to myself why would I spend time learning Latin and poem analysis if I could be securing companies and governments and being part of the transition to the digital economy,” said Colombo, whose company provides security audits, penetration tests and cyber security consultancy to clients across the world.


The role of youth

Colombo noted that the internet enables youth to use technology to learn about technology. The modern age is the best time for young people to find their true passion and craft their own journey.

“All I needed was a browser to learn about computers, software and networks.”

While not everyone has a passion for technology, Colombo said it’s the youth’s responsibility to try different areas until they find where their interest lies. Hard work then follows to overcome possible challenges ahead.

“Putting in your effort to build a better future in any field you undertake is worth it,” urged Colombo.

For the young expert, the journey has just begun. He’s aiming at growing his business and impact. “I think the feeling of not achieving enough will not change for a long time because opportunities to shape the future are never big enough,” said Colombo.

Dubai will be the launchpad for his bigger dreams.

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