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Are keyless ignitions making our cars easier to steal?

Keyless ignitions have penetrated the automotive market in the past few years and can now be found in everything from economy cars to luxury SUVs. They are convenient for vehicle owners but can bring a greater theft risk. Now, devices to defeat these systems are becoming cheaper.

Keyed-ignition vehicles are also vulnerable to theft but provide a deterrent that is enough to keep many professional thieves away. Traditional keyed ignition systems work by inserting a physical key into an ignition cylinder and rotating it to start the car. Modern vehicles with keyed ignition systems provide another layer of security by utilizing immobilizer systems that look for a unique RFID chip before allowing a vehicle to be started. Keyless-ignition vehicles work in a similar manner, but instead allow the vehicle to be started by pressing a button on the dash. Many of the keyless systems use the same type of RFID chips to authenticate the key and allow the vehicle to be started.

These RFID chips can be defeated by devices that plug into the onboard diagnostic (OBD) port and reprogram the immobilizer module. Keyed ignition systems are safer in these cases, as they provide an additional layer of security when these modules are reprogrammed. In most cases, the procedure to reprogram the module requires the physical key to be present and turned multiple times during the programming sequence. This will deter many thieves, as they would be required to bring an exact copy of the key or a new ignition cylinder with them and tear up the dashboard of the car to install it, which could take a significant amount of time.

Keyless ignition systems require very little to be defeated. In most cases, all the thieves need is a reprogramming device and a blank key fob or RFID chip. The above video shows one such $700 device, made by a Chinese company and available online, being used to reprogram a Range Rover Sport. The person playing the thief enters the vehicle without a valid keyfob, which sets off the alarm, and quickly plugs in the reprogramming device. The device then enters the programming mode and shuts off the alarm in about 25 seconds. After that point, the programming lasts about a minute and a half and allows the vehicle to be started with the new fob. The whole procedure, from walking up to the car to being able to drive it off, takes less than 2 minutes.

This type of theft is becoming an epidemic in Europe, where high-end luxury SUVs are being stolen and taken to Eastern Europe and the Middle East; they're sold to buyers with forged paperwork so that they can be registered. One such case was caught on camera in London just a few weeks ago – a thief was able to steal a Range Rover in just 23 seconds. This theft is not an isolated case, as 30 Range Rovers have been stolen in the same area in a period of less than two weeks. According to the Metropolitan Police, over 4,000 BMWs and Range Rovers were stolen without their keys in 2014.

Law enforcement agencies all over the world have put out tips and warnings on how to keep your car safe from these sophisticated thieves. One suggestion is to obtain an OBD lock that can be placed over the diagnostic port to prevent access to programming devices. These locks are usually made from aluminum or steel and consist of a plate that can be locked over the diagnostic port using a unique key. They are available for around $200 and cover many of the frequently stolen models. I believe such locks need to be implemented by the automotive manufacturers, as they do not provide a loss of convenience to vehicle owners, since the diagnostic port is infrequently accessed. Owners could be provided with a key for the port which can be given to technicians if service is required. These locks would be similar to using wheel locks. They would be a deterrent for thieves as they would require them to break the lock or cut the wires and re-pin a blank port, which would require a significant investment of time. While not a complete solution, a lockable port cover is at least a step toward solving a problem that's not going away.

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