Researchers in Germany and Norway report that thieves have learned how to intercept the signals from keyless transmitters to gain entry to locked cars and drive off with them. In an experiment, the sleuthing scientist were able to successfully hack their way into 25 models from 19 different manufacturers.
The results of the work by Germany’s auto club ADAC and Norway’s NAF were first published in Germany’s weekly trade publication, Wirtschafts Woche. The electronic devices needed to pull off the thefts can be made by anyone with a modicum of experience in electronics using about $225 worth of readily available off the shelf components.
“This clear vulnerability in [wireless] keys facilitates the work of thieves immensely,” says the German newspaper. “The radio connection between keys and car can easily be extended over several hundred meters, regardless of whether the original key is, for example, at home or in the pocket of the owner.”
The hack involves a transmitter/reciver near the car that picks up a signal and relays it to another transmitter/receiver near the real wireless key, which could be in the owner’s pocket or even inside the house. Once the car is started, it can be driven until the fuel tank is empty or the battery is depleted. That’s often far enough for the car to driven out of the country or into a container where it can be shipped overseas.
“We do not want to publish an exact wiring diagram, for this would enable even young [students] to copy the devices,” says ADAC researcher Arnulf Thiemel. As it is, he says, the devices are simple enough that “every second semester electronic student should be able to build such devices without any further technical instruction.”
ADAC warns there is no easy fix for the problem, although one intrepid New York Times reporter in LA found that storing his key in the freezer foiled any attempts to steal his car. Others suggest wrapping the key in aluminum foil to keep its radio emissions from being intercepted. Pictured below is another possible solution.
Manufacturers are constantly upgrading the electronic security of their remote access systems and thieves are constantly raising their game in return. It’s probably fair to say that if car makers are ahead at this moment, their advantage is only slight and very temporary.