Swiss Researchers Show how Easy it is to Hack Cars with Keyless Entry

For many of us, the thought of having our car stolen is too great a burden to bear. We assure ourselves by investing in alarm systems, secure parking and cars fitted with keyless entry and start. These cars, we think, would be harder for criminals to steal. How wrong we are.

At the upcoming Network and Distributed System Security Symposium in San Diego, researchers from ETH Zurich’s system security group will present evidence on how they successfully hacked ten cars from eight manufacturers, using the sort of equipment you can buy at your local electronics’ store.

The small team of computer science researchers – Assistant Professor Srdjan Capkun, AurĂ©lien Fancillon and Boris Danev – were able to gain access and drive away in all ten vehicles simply by exploiting the way keyless entry systems work.

The theory is very simple. Your car and your key fob are linked together. The fob emits a unique electronic signal, and your car listens out for this. When the fob is near your car, the doors unlock and the push button start is enabled. Once you move more than a few feet away, your car can no longer pick up the signal and the doors remained locked. However, this doesn’t mean the key fob isn’t still transmitting its signal.

In one scenario presented by the researchers, a mark locks his car and walks away. One thief tails the mark, carrying with him a concealed antenna, while another waits by the car. The first thief can afford to keep his distance; this ploy will work from eight metres (26 feet) away. Once in range of the key fob, the signal from the concealed antenna is relayed back to another antenna that’s held by the thief near the car. The car deduces that the key fob is near and the doors unlock. Hey presto, your car is gone.

This particular method of attack can cost as little as US$100 (€74) and works regardless of the cryptography and protocols (i.e. the electronic security) integrated into your key fob.

But don’t stress too much. Capkun and others, including Assistant Professor Tadayoshi Kohno at the University of Washington, are working on ways to make these sorts of attacks impossible – or at least very difficult – in the future. Aside from that, David Wagner at the University of California at Berkeley is certain that this method of theft is too involved for most car thieves.

“There are probably easier ways to steal cars.” he says.

Still, automakers, police and insurance companies should be aware of the risks and collectively work towards making such thefts and thing of the past.

By Tristan Hankins

Source: Technology Review