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More needs to be done to secure keyless-entry vehicles

Automotive IndustryCar SecurityCar TechnologyCar TrackingKeyless EntryProgrammable Keys+-

As many of you will be aware, it’s not worth owning a Range Rover if you live in Central London as they are too easily stolen and insurance premiums have become astronomical as a result. Yet this is not a problem solely afflicting the wealthy, as keyless-entry cars of pretty much all denominations are still misappropriated far too often. BMWs and Range Rovers seem particularly susceptible, but so too are more common Fords - Galaxy, Focus and Fiesta.


A typical scenario may be as follows:


"As the innocent motorist tries to lock the car, the signal is blocked by an RF jammer. The owner walks away, unknowingly leaving the car open / unlocked, the criminal then plugs an information reader into the onboard diagnostic socket, reprograms a blank key and drives it away."




"Whichever way they gain access (could be through breaking window), once in the car the thief plugs a hand-held ‘key fob’ programmer, freely and legally available on the internet, into the car’s on-board diagnostics (OBD) port to record the car’s vital systems data. Car makers are obliged by law to permit rival services to access the OBD, hence the existence of such devices. Once the fob is programmed - which takes less than 15 seconds - the thief is in control of your car."


Keyless entry is thus too fallible - it can be intercepted, blocked and spoofed even. The basic mode of communication is insecure and needs to change, or the whole method needs to be replaced by a more secure process - using some form of biometric screening possibly, and not being communicated over the airwaves in such a hackable fashion.


For anti-monopoly reasons there exists a clause in the legal framework of most countries to allow anyone to service your vehicle; this currently means that anyone can buy a ’key-fob programmer’ (anonymously off the Internet even) which is able to reset your car’s access in under 15 seconds. This process needs to change also, I’m not entirely clear exactly what would replace it, but it is currently far too open to abuse - and motor vehicle manufacturers use this as an excuse to not be able to guarantee the security of their vehicles.


Most keyless-entry vehicles still don’t come with a smart tracker as standard - something my iPhone has had for several years now (Find iPhone App). Such a tracker could certainly mitigate and limit theft whereby you could configure accepted routes and deviations and times / modes of behaviour - which would set off alerts or even trigger immobiliser if your vehicle was operated outside those parameters. Beyond all that, simply having a solid tracker internally embedded into the core of the engine - would make the vehicle more secure.


Some police forces are recommending car owners go back to using steering-wheel locks again, but even the most robust of these can be disabled within a couple of minutes. A large number of cars these days are being stripped down for parts before being shipped abroad - this means that manufacturers need to come up with more clever ways of identifying key parts - ways that can’t be filed away or concealed.


Last year, Police seized a shipping container at Felixstowe containing 5 whole Range Rovers and the stripped-down parts of as many as 12 BMW saloons. Criminal gangs ship whole vehicles to one of the 54 other countries which also drive on the left, most typically one of the 13 in Africa - Kenya seems to have been popular of late. Stripped down vehicle components mostly end up in Eastern Europe.


Police forces have set up several stinger operations on routes into the key UK ports, and many of these have had success, although it’s impossible to search every container. And while anyone can still buy a key-programmer on the Internet, it means that any security system is ultimately fallible if you can simply reprogram a key within 15 seconds. I still believe in having a level playing field, and you should be able to service your vehicle with whomsoever you may choose. It should not be so easy to steal your vehicle though. I’m not calling for the law to be rescinded as such, but the process has to change, and we cannot have key-programmers in the hands of anyone and everyone.


As far as I’m concerned there are three key tasks that need to be tackled here - the method of keyless-entry must be improved and made more robust, we must limit or prevent key-programmers being deployed in this fashion, and all vehicles should have an engine-embedded tracker fitted by law. The vehicle manufacturer is accountable for all manner of car safety aspects, but they have hugely diminished responsibilities for the security and safe-keep of their vehicles.


Chances are your car will be stolen when you least expect it - from a municipal, mall, hotel or airport car park for instance. Owning and keeping your car really should not be so difficult in this age of technology...




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