Jan. 18, 2011 at 3:06 PM ET
Unlocking your car remotely, using a fob with that comforting "tweak!-tweak!" sound, is a time-saver but may not be super-secure, a new study finds.
Three researchers from the system security group at ETH Zurich in Switzerland were able to get into 10 vehicles (none are identified) made by eight manufacturers (also not identified), and were able to "drive them away by intercepting and relaying signals from the cars to their wireless keys," according to MIT's Technology Review.
"While they could relay the signals from the key back to the car as well, usually they did not need to because the key transmits its signals up to around 100 meters," the Review said. "The attack works no matter what cryptography and protocols the key and car use to communicate with each other.
"Normally, when a wireless key is within a few meters of the right car, it detects a low-powered signal that causes it to issue a command that opens the car enable the ignition. The researchers used a pair of antennas to transmit these signals from the car to the key when the key was farther away, tricking the car into opening without the ordinary authorization. One antenna needs to be very close to the car, and one needs to be within eight meters of the key.
"The researchers came up with two versions of the attack. In one, they ran a cable from near the car to near the key and used it to transmit the signals. They conducted the other wirelessly. (Researcher Aurélien) Francillon says that the materials for the wired attack cost about $50, and those for the wireless attack cost between $100 and $1,000, depending on the electronic components used."
The researchers' findings will be discussed in more details at next month's Network and Distributed System Security Symposium next month in San Diego.
A UC Berkeley professor of computer science, David Wagner, told the Review that car owners shouldn't feel anxious because of the research. "There are probably easier way to steal cars," he said. But he also said he sees the work as significant enough for auto manufacturers to take heed.