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Smart keys make it possibly to conveniently start your ... Smart keys make it possibly to conveniently start your car with the push of a button, but they also come with some risks involved (Ford).
Some basic electronic gear is all tech-minded car thieves would need to steal many recent models, according to Swiss researchers. They successfully hacked into 10 vehicles from eight manufacturers in the latest of a growing number of studies exposing potential security risks as vehicles become more computerized and connected.

For their experiment, the researchers at Switzerland's ETH Zurich University used antennas costing as little as $100 to take advantage of passive keyless entry and start, or PKES systems. These convenience systems lock and unlock your car just based on the key fob's proximity to the car, for example, as you approach your vehicle with arms full of groceries and the key fob in your pocket. PKES systems also allow a driver to start the car without inserting a key into an ignition lock, usually with a push button.

The Swiss researchers used a pair of antennas (one near the key holder and a second near the vehicle, connected wirelessly or via cables) to trigger and relay signals across longer distances, up to 50 meters.

"Car thieves are pretty resourceful, and more sophisticated than people would guess," said Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "This kind of vulnerability will probably become well known to them."

For consumers who own a vehicle with PKES, Nerad recommends monitoring news about their particular model, and potentially contacting their manufacturer to find out if and when a retrofit becomes available.

As an immediate fix, the ETH study authors say users can protect against PKES signal hijacking by placing their key fob in a small key case lined with aluminum. "When the key is in the key case, it would not receive any signals from the car (relayed or direct)," the researchers write. This would, of course, detract from the convenience factor of not having to physically retrieve a key for the PKES functions. Plus, the researchers note, attackers might be able to increase the reading power of their gear enough to break through the protective shield.

Another option suggested in the study calls for removing the battery that powers the radio from the key, thereby disabling its wireless communication function. Users would then be required to use a backup physical key (typically hidden in the wireless key fob) to unlock the car. Starting the engine would be a bit more tricky. "Given that the cars that use PKES cannot be started using a physical key," a user in this scenario would have to, "place the key in the close proximity of some predesignated location in the car (e.g. the car start button)." This way the car could communicate with the key using short-range communication.

Down the road, the researchers say manufacturers could provide software updates or hardware modifications to make existing PKES systems less vulnerable to attack. For example, automakers could add a switch to the key fob that would disconnect the internal battery, temporarily disabling the PKES functions.

According to Nerad, PKES systems are becoming very prevalent, "something that people seek out even in lower end cars," he said, with keyless start becoming available throughout most model lines. PKES systems are "a convenience feature that a lot of people like and are willing to pay more for," making them important for automakers who earn big profits on options like these, he said.

At this point, however, Nerad believes that "the threat, while real, is not all that great." He says vendors will move quickly to make these systems more secure and automakers will be able to implement software fixes to stay ahead of the curve.

New technologies sometimes require an outside entity to point out Achilles heels, said Nerad. Over the last few years, researchers have revealed potential vulnerabilities in tire pressure monitoring systems, onboard navigation systems and electronic control units governing key vehicle functions like braking and steering.

Wade Newton, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told AOL Autos that automakers continue looking at electronic security issues "before it becomes a problem." He added that the Society of Engineers, which develops consensus-based vehicle standards, "is considering potential standards that can proactively be applied on this. While SAE does that, automakers continue to dedicate researchers and engineers to focusing on ensuring that state-of-the-art security procedures are available for our products."

Chris Martin, a spokesperson for American Honda Motor Co., noted that real security is somewhat of a moving target. "We have evolved our technology over the years to make our cars more and more difficult to steal," he said, noting innovations such as engine immobilizers, advanced key cutting and "rolling code" in keyless entry systems that prevents an attacker from "eavesdropping" once on the unlock command and then being able to replicate it at will.



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  • 185 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      Cmon you guys what kind of news is this?
      Harry Hurt
      • 4 Years Ago
      New invention: When someone gains illegal entry into a car, they must enter a code on a key pad, and if it's the wrong code, or none is entered, bars run up the windows, the doors lock, and a cell-phone like device calls the cops. Also, a dye squirter zaps them with purple dye. The engine won't start. The radio plays a sermon entitled,"THOU SHALT NOT STEAL." The horn blows a morse code SOS.---_ _ _--- continually. And a loudspeaker announces "Hey, everybody!!! This car is being stolen."
      Great One
      • 4 Years Ago
      How about a locked case left on your front seat with a rattlesnake in it. An ink bomb might work
      • 4 Years Ago
      i disabled my keyless entry when i got my car , 3 years ago . for the reason is that i could bypass it easy enough . worst case i loose my keys . i can still get in it in about 30 seconds . this is not new news . it takes me about 2 min to get into my truck. with out breaking anything . most car theives are much better than me . i could not compete if i waunted too . i seen a guy walk up to and steal a jeep grand cherokee in 1997 took him less then a min to take off , that right after they were bragging about their antitheft system .
      • 4 Years Ago
      AOL Shame, shame is your middle name, you might as well handed them the keys. People who steal read AOL also.
      • 3 Years Ago
      http://www.asyup.com The company products cheaper price, reputation first, quality first, welcome friends order. Fashion, trends, avant-garde; the global epidemic. Woman Boot $40 + Air jordan(1-24)shoes $33 bag $30 + Tshirts $ 16 Low-heeled shoes $40 Air Max SHOE(Air Max 24-7,Air Max 2011,Air Max 2010,Air Max 2009 )$38 Jean (True Religion, ed hardy, coogi) $ 30, Sunglasses (Oakey, coach, gucci, Armaini) $ 16, New era cap $ 15, jacket(Gucci,G-STAR,Ed Hardy,ARMANI,AF ,) $40 Woman Boot: (Christian Louboutin,NIKE,LV,Jordan,)$48
      jmartinlegal
      • 4 Years Ago
      The Golden Rules of Driving 1. Always lock your car. 2. Never leave anything visible on the seats of your car. 3. Never drive in or near Detroit.
      brawnydoc
      • 3 Years Ago
      I like the idea of an "On-Off" switch on the key fob. Another problem are the buttons that open the windows or tailgate if held down. I have put the fob in my pocket and gone into a restaurant only to come out with the windows open or the tailgate up because the fob pressed against my wallet or something in my pocket. I had $15,000 worth of antiques in the back. I am lucky they were not stolen by a passer-by. Put an "On-Off" switch on the key fob.
        GOODDOC1
        • 3 Years Ago
        @brawnydoc
        I know you can get automatic starters here, but they may be an aftermarket feature. I'd really like something like you describe -- I live in Alaska, and it would be nice to go out to a warm car.
      • 4 Years Ago
      there is no lock that cannot be picked... save us the money and the aggravation on having to go to nasa to replace the newest gadget security 'gadget'.
      Brutal
      • 4 Years Ago
      I have the best idea ... when you get in your car you must do a retinal scan. If not, the car will not start. Even better, the car will self-destruct in 5 seconds.
      Mikerrr
      • 4 Years Ago
      Reason #113 why I won't buy a new vehicle. I don't even like the bullsh*t deal that causes my doors to lock when I get over 10 mph. I disabled my neutral start and clutch release lock-out switches years ago. In short, I don't want my car to do anything without my direct input except maybe adjusting the fuel-air mixture - and frankly I still miss my old manual choke. . .
      sgentilejr
      • 4 Years Ago
      The new electronic ignition button system system and electronic door locks are NOT worth the added costs at time the vehicles are manufactured and purchased or the add costs later when these electronic systems fail and need to be repaired. The more equipment they add on as 'standard equipment' the higher the vehicles prices get and the more repair problems there are later. Have we as a society become so lazy we can no longer turn a key in a lock, open our trunks with a key and open the gas fill with our hand? God help us if we are actually that lazy now.
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