Keyless entry systems vulnerable to high-tech car thieves
Swiss researchers find holes in the keyless systems from eight car
By Colin Bird
Remote keyless entry has been around for a while – since the late
1980s, in fact – and today it’s almost standard on all new cars. But
the pervasiveness of this feature is not without consequence. As
researchers in Switzerland point out, the technology can make vehicle
theft a breeze for a savvy thief.
Remote keyless-entry systems use radio waves that typically are
specific to a manufacturer, and the signals are usually encrypted.
When your vehicle’s key fob is within 20 feet of the car, you’re
allowed to transmit a signal to unlock the doors, pop the trunk,
remote start your car (when equipped) or activate the car alarm.
Researchers at ETH Zurich discovered that these encrypted signals are
easy to intercept and trick.
Keyless entry systems are vulnerable to car thieves.
The theft works by setting up two antennas, one near the targeted
vehicle and one near the holder of the key fob — be it in a purse, bag
or pocket. This equipment can usually be purchased for $100 to $1,000.
The person with the antenna aimed at the owner of the key fob needs to
get within 26 feet of the target. In a store, this could be a few
aisles away, so as to not arouse suspicion.
Once the antenna is near the intended victim’s key fob, the key
transmits a low-power signal to the antenna, which is then relayed to
the antenna near the vehicle. Once that occurs, the thief can unlock
the doors and drive away (if the vehicle has push-button start).
The Swiss researchers hacked into eight car manufacturers’
passive-entry systems using this method. No cryptology or protocol
could stop it.
While this system may seem fairly complicated, it could catch on with
car thieves because of the cost of the equipment and anonymity.
However, the hack cannot start the cars with traditional keys. Today’s
ignition systems are increasingly complicated and secure. That’s one
reason why car thefts are largely on the decline in the U.S.
David Wagner, a computer science professor at the University of
California at Berkeley, said there are probably easier way to steal
cars, but the “nasty aspect of high-tech car theft” is that it doesn’t
leave any sign of forced entry. That could lead to problems with
police and insurance companies in tracking down the criminals or with
Right now, the only way to protect yourself is by either shielding
your key fob’s radio with a guard or leaving your key fob at home.
Srdjan Capkun, an assistant professor at ETH Zurich, says the
institute is working on a way to prevent this sort of theft.