Car Remotes Hacked

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-04-09 Print this article Print

Some of the simplest things that we take for granted aren't as secure as we assume. But will this really help car thieves?

German scientists have cracked the KeeLoq system, which is the cryptography used in RFID-based remote devices, including car remotes from Volvo, Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen.

At first glance this seems like a catastrophe for owners of those cars (I own two Hondas myself). And make no mistake, if the report is true, it exposes great failings of both U.S.-based Microchip Technology, which designed the security system in those devices, and the automobile companies that implemented it and trusted Microchip Technology. They both have a problem. This isn't a new phenomenon, by the way. A similar crack happened a couple years ago.

And it's not just cars. Many remote openers for gates and garages are based on the same technology, which the article I cited says uses a 20-year-old insecure cipher.

If my gate or garage were compromised in this way, I might be more concerned than for my car. The one thing the article failed to point out is that cloning the remote gets you into the car, but it doesn't start the engine.

Click here for Larry Seltzer's five-year security review. 

Hot-wiring a car used to be as simple as pulling away the bottom panel of the dashboard and futzing with some wires, but it's not that easy anymore. When my 1984 Accord (yes, I'm a Honda man) was stolen in 1989, the thief ripped out the driver's door lock and the ignition lock. I actually got the car back the next day and drove it home by jamming a Phillips screwdriver into the socket at the bottom of where the ignition lock had been. (Good thing it was an automatic or I'd have needed three hands.) But this sort of low-tech approach doesn't work anymore. You need better tools and more time.

Modern ignitions often-perhaps even usually-won't start unless the right chipped key is in the ignition, and a separate security process governs that. Of course, why should those security systems be any better than the door lock remotes? Here's one example of someone who (claims to have) defeated a chipped key. Obviously cars still get stolen, but it's a lot harder to get the car started than it used to be, unless the driver is stupid enough to leave keys on the visor or something like that.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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