A recent string of mysterious car thefts in Toronto has sparked questions about the security of wireless car key fobs.
Toronto Police Service 53 Division issued a public safety alert April 9 that describes a recent spike in thefts of Lexus and Toyota vehicles from driveways in the area, noting that there aren’t signs of forced entry at any of the scenes.
“Investigators believe that the suspect(s) may have access to electronic devices which can compromise an SUV's security system,” reads the release.
An article in the New York Times by Nick Bilton describes a similar scenario that happened to him.
“In recent months, there has been a slew of mysterious car break-ins in my Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles,” writes Bilton.
“What’s odd is that there have been no signs of forced entry. There are no pools of broken glass on the pavement and no scratches on the doors from jimmied locks.”
Bilton says this has happened to him and his Toyota Prius three times in four weeks, and on the most recent occasion, he watched a couple teenagers on bicycles use a small black device to try to gain entry to his vehicle. He saw them use the device to open the door and then climb into his car.
“As soon as I realized what had happened, I ran outside and they quickly jumped on their bikes and took off,” Bilton writes.
After looking into a few different theories of what might have happened, Bilton finally settles on one from a Swiss security company that specializes in wireless devices.
The theory is this: when you walk up to your vehicle and tell it to unlock, the vehicle searches for your key fob within a certain range. If the key is within range, it tells the door to unlock. The range is generally just a few feet.
However, these teenagers are using a device called a power amplifier to extend the range of this search, sometimes up to 100 feet, writes Bilton. If your key is in your house, this is generally close enough for the car to unlock.
This device can cost as low as $17 and is easily purchasable online—hence the teenagers.
The solution? Putting your keys in the freezer. Freezers act as what’s called a Faraday cage, which blocks external electrical fields, rendering the power amplifiers useless.
Recently, an American senator tabled legislation aimed at automobile manufacturers, calling for better and more consistent cyber security standards in the industry.
While this key fob hack is a lot less sophisticated than what the American legislation is addressing, it’s equally—if not more—important. There are a mix of reports ranging from simple in-vehicles thefts to actual stolen vehicles that have been linked to some sort of car hacking method.
Regardless of the method or intent, it seems like cars are becoming more and more connected, increasing the options for thieves—and it manufacturers must make moves to address the problems.