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.
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.
The Easiest Part of Stealing a Car
In fact, getting into the car is probably the easiest part of stealing it. If you have some privacy, you can just break the window. Some people insist that you can still unlock doors with a slim jim, although I’m suspicious of that.
A thief can still do something in a car even if they can’t start it. My -84 Accord got broken into and robbed probably 10 times. One team member would break the fake vent window (known as a “quarter glass” to the auto glass shop, which soon knew me by name), and later another would come around to fish through the car and take what they wanted. This is how the cops told me it worked. They didn’t even try to steal the car, and no modern cryptography would stop this crime wave.
Now if an RFID clicker with a cheesy 20-year-old cipher were the key to my house, I would quickly remove or supplement it, but I don’t think my 2003 Odyssey is meaningfully less secure because of this development. I don’t think anyone’s going to go to the trouble of what’s described in the article in order to do the easy part of the theft.
Security CenterEditor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer’s blog Cheap Hack.