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Car cybersecurity hacking made easy

Low-skilled thieves can still crack car key fobs with easy access to hardware and software and imperfect onboard diagnostic protocol strategies.

Not long ago, while attending a tech conference in San Francisco, my colleague’s BMW was robbed by cyber attackers. The car was not damaged, but two of our laptops (secured in the trunk) were stolen. Since then, car wireless security has become a real concern for me.

How does burglary happen? Very easy, according to several recent reports. By using a $30 tool developed by hackers to “pwn” the car security system, unskilled criminals can easily open and steal high-end cars. “Pwn” is internet slang for “to own” and to surrender or steal to gain ownership. With a $30 tool from China, criminals can reprogram blank car keys, allowing these unskilled thieves to steal the vehicle in two or three minutes. It is hoped that its main use is to develop a way to attack the hacking that is being stopped.

Part of the success lies in automotive on-board diagnostic (OBD) bypass tools shipped from China and Eastern Europe. Potential car thieves just need to block wireless transmission between the invalid key fob and the car before reprogramming the blank key. With the new key/remote, criminals can open or start the car via the OBD system and protocol.

RF and wireless sniffers and jamming products are readily available on the Internet. The product descriptions on these sites are often so poorly written that they attest to the home country origin of most suppliers. A special note: Deliberately tampering with RF signals is legal in the United States.

RFI jammers exist for every type of wireless protocol, from GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to cell phones. Why block the car’s signal? One reason is to hide the GPS tracking data sent to your car’s trip location. Cell phone transfers can also be blocked. Additionally, such jammers can be used to attack nearby vehicles, depending on their proximity level, the strength of the jammer’s transmitter, and the architecture of the intended receiver (ie, the vehicle being thwarted).

The purpose of jamming is to disrupt or prevent the clear reception of RF signals through electronic means. Typically, scramblers are specifically designed for the destination receiver architecture. Once the type of jammer is known, its effects can be accentuated in the receiver.

Detecting the presence of signal jammers is critical to the mitigation effort, as jammers are hard to stop. Tech-savvy car owners can use a spectrum analyzer to measure the uniform energy change in the remote lock-on spectrum. The detection of disturbing scenes lets car owners know that there is a risk. The technology is so prolific these days that a quick search on the internet reveals instructions on how to crack a car key fob in stunning detail.