Auto manufacturers have long embraced technology that can streamline the automotive experience for drivers. For example, several years ago keyless entry and ignition systems were introduced, initially on high-end vehicles before they became standard on many other models.
Instead of the traditional turn and crank key, keyless entry systems use a fob, which sends a signal to the receiver inside the vehicle. That signal can then perform multiple tasks, such as unlock and lock the doors and turn on the car via remote start.
“Most of them have a computer chip in them that the car has to recognize in order for it to lock and unlock the car by pushing the button,” said Will Rember, who works in the sales department at Toyota of Paris.
“There’s some that you can remote start from the key fob, there are some you can lock and unlock, roll the windows down from the key fobs, unlock the trunk from the key fobs. You can push the button one time and it unlocks one door; you can push it twice and it will unlock all the doors,” he said.
When drivers receive a key fob from the dealership, they should take great care in making sure it doesn’t get lost. Key fobs are expensive to replace, which leads people to believe they can program a key themselves to avoid the cost. That can cause severe issues if not done properly.
“With Ford vehicles, they have to be brought to the dealership and they have to be programmed via a Ford computer,” said Robert Boyden, service manager at Paris Ford.
“Here we actually verify the customer’s identity and that they’re the owner of the vehicle to their VIN so they have to bring us proof of ownership in at least two different ways plus their ID before we’ll program a new key to the car. Also, the people have to be here when you program them. That’s a way to make sure nobody just brings in a VIN and says, ‘This is my vehicle. Can you program a key?” Boyden said.
Because fobs work on wireless systems, hackers potentially can intercept the fob-to-car signal. That enables a thief to not only open the vehicle’s doors, but also to potentially drive away as well. Even though the fob/car security pairing is unique and can create billions of codes, researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands and the University of Birmingham found that by intercepting the wireless signal just twice, they could narrow down the possible combinations from billions to just 200,000. After that, a computer can figure out the code in just half an hour and unlock the car. Potentially, a thief can gather car codes as drivers enter their vehicles during the day, then return later to steal a number of cars.
Thieves who purchase signal amplifiers also pose a threat. The amplifiers magnify the reach of the fob signal so that a vehicle owner can be in his or her house with the fob, but the thief can walk up to the car and open it — even if the fob is far enough away that it should not engage. One way to circumvent this is to buy a signal-blocking pouch that can hold the key fob. Also, an old-school steering wheel or gear shift lock is an effective layer of protection.
Car companies such as Ford are working toward eliminating the possibility of a hacker intercepting the signal.
“(Ford) actually did some software updates to all of their vehicles. You can’t pick up a frequency via a scanner anymore. We’re constantly trying to change the way we do things, so to think like them and to try and outthink them,” Boyden said.