Researchers claim to crack car key code
Device also decodes gasoline purchase key-chain tags
The Associated Press
BALTIMORE - Researchers said they have found a way to crack the code
used in millions of car keys, a development they said could allow
thieves to bypass the security systems on newer car models.
The research team at Johns Hopkins University said Saturday it
discovered that the "immobilizer" security system developed by Texas
Instruments could be cracked using a "relatively inexpensive electronic
device" that acquires information hidden in the microchips that make the
The radio-frequency security system being used in more than 150 million
new Fords, Toyotas and Nissans involves a transponder chip embedded in
the key and a reader inside the car. If the reader does not recognize
the transponder, the car will not start, even if the key inserted in the
ignition is the correct one.
It's similar to the new gasoline purchase system in which a reader
inside the gas pump is able to recognize a small key-chain tag when the
tag is waved in front of it. The transaction is then charged to the
tag owner's credit card. Researchers said they were able to crack
that code, too.
"We stole our own car, and we bought gas stealing from our own credit
card," said Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins
who led the research team.
Texas Instruments was recently given demonstrations of the team's code
cracking capabilities, but the company maintains its system is
secure. Tony Sabetti, a business manager with Texas Instruments, said
the hardware used to crack the codes is cumbersome, expensive and not
practical for common thieves.
"I think the way in which it's presented as being inexpensive to do and
quick and all the rest of that is an exaggeration," Sabetti said.
"And because of that, we believe the technology still is extremely
secure for the applications that it's used in."
But Rubin said the code-breaking demonstrations illustrate that
developers did not pay enough attention to security. "I think the
implications are that it sets us back about 10 years ago where we were
with car security," Rubin said.
In the seven years the technology has been in use, Texas Instruments has
never had a reported incident where a car has been stolen or a
gasoline-purchasing tag has been duplicated, company spokesman Bill
The Johns Hopkins team, which was funded by Bedford, Mass.-based RSA
Security Inc., recommended distributing free metallic sheaths to cover
the radio frequency devices when they are not being used.
2005 The Associated Press
There are two classes of pedestrians in these days of reckless motor
traffic - the quick and the dead.
~ Lord Dewar 1933 ~
Climbing into a hot car is like buckling on a pistol. It is the great
equalizer. ~ Henry G. Felsen 1964 ~