Active keyless entry, where a button has to be pushed, has been around for decades. Passive keyless entry, where you don’t have to push a button to unlock the car, is becoming standard on many higher model cars. Both keyless entry methods are much more convenient for drivers. With embedded chips, they also offer more security than traditional keys, since the chip signature has to be present to start the car.
But that doesn’t mean that they’re entirely secure. There have been many publicized break-ins that seem like they’re being done using keyless entry systems. Here are a few of the possible methods that are being suggested.
Passive Signal Amplification
With passive keyless entry, the car emits a low frequency signal that extends a very short distance from the car. When the key comes in range the signal is detected, and the key sends the authorization code to allow the doors to be unlocked.
Security specialists say that thieves may use a device that amplifies that low frequency signal, allowing the car and the key to connect from much farther away. For example, the key could be inside the house while the car is on the street and thieves could amplify its signal to unlock the car door. Analysts say this method could be prevented by installing a proximity chip in the key.
Brute Force Hacks
There are trillions of combinations for the codes between the car and the key, and only a few are valid at any given time. That being said, there are hundreds of codes being transmitted through the air from other keyless entry devices. Computer networks might lock out the account after a few tries, but cars have to ignore these wrong codes, otherwise they’d be locked out all the time.
That lack of functionality is what brute force hacks utilize. They’ll send out transmissions with millions of different code combinations in a matter of minutes. If the right one hits the car, then the doors will unlock. This method is largely combated by increasing the encryption level. Many cars use 56-bit encryption, but upgrading to 128-bit encryption would require so many combinations that brute force would take too long.
There are a few methods that aren’t hacks, just clever tricks. One of these is to use a frequency jammer. These illegal devices can block any transmission within a certain frequency range. Fire one up near a car, and it can stop the signal getting through. The driver will think they locked the car, but it didn’t go through and the car stays unlocked, just waiting for the thief to open the door.
Another method is good old fashioned organized crime: the thieves simply clone the keys and their security programming when the car goes in for repair. You can avoid this by making sure you go to reputable and trustworthy auto repair shops.
So Is Hacking Possible?
The definitive answer from the experts? Yes, it is possible. That being said, it’s not very likely. The cases that have been highlighted by the media are rare, and the methods require a combination of specialized equipment and knowledge. And most importantly, whenever a new weak point is discovered, automakers work quickly to repair it. So make sure that you keep on top of any recalls for your vehicle, since some of them may cover your keyless entry software.
And the absolute best thing you can do to keep your car secure? Most of these robberies happen at night, so make sure that your car is physically removed from harm in a garage or other secure area.