Worried About Your Car Getting Hacked? So Is the FBI

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More sophisticated technology in cars -- and among hackers -- means there are perils lurking. Consumers and law enforcers have reason to be concerned.

We know that Americans are concerned about their cars being hacked. We also know that some consumers believe criminals are “hacking” into their parked cars and committing “snatch and grab” crimes using devices that simulate newfangled keyless entry systems.

Now we know the FBI is worried about car hacking, too. The agency, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, issued a bold warning to consumers and manufacturers last week.

“The FBI and NHTSA are warning the general public and manufacturers – of vehicles, vehicle components, and aftermarket devices – to maintain awareness of potential issues and cybersecurity threats related to connected vehicle technologies in modern vehicles,” the warning says. “While not all hacking incidents may result in a risk to safety — such as an attacker taking control of a vehicle — it is important that consumers take appropriate steps to minimize risk.”

The FBI warning didn’t raise any new concerns; it mainly cites revelations of car hacking from 2015 as impetus for the warning. Still, the notice clearly demonstrates there is a level of activity around car hacking that should have everyone concerned. Drive down the highway sometime (as a passenger) and use your smartphone to look at all the cars sending out Bluetooth connections around you, and you’ll get an idea about how connected our vehicles have become.

Mysterious break-ins

Meanwhile, consumers continue to report mysterious car break-ins around the country with no signs of forced entry, in situations when they swear their car doors were locked. In Baltimore, a string of crimes following this pattern frustrated local residents earlier this year.

“What was strange to me was that, while I could tell it was broken into because my jacket was taken and they tossed through the stuff in the car, there were no signs of a breaking. No broken windows or anything,” said one driver. “I called and reported it mostly because I wanted to know how anyone could have gotten in if it was locked and no windows were broken. The officer said people have these things that basically interfere with newer cars electronic/fob locking systems and disable the alarms.”

The reports follow a persistent set of national stories around “key fob” break-ins that began with a CNN report two years ago, and was followed by a New York Times story last year that casually suggested drivers store their car fobs in their freezers to keep them safe from hackers. (Notably, the story appeared in the Times’ Style section. The science was a little shallow.)

More from Bob Sullivan, tech skeptic and consumer advocate

There have also been vague warnings issued by some agencies around the world, like this notice from the London Police, or this notice from the National Insurance Crime Bureau:

“The keyless entry feature on newer cars is a popular advancement that lets drivers unlock their cars with the simple click of a button on a key fob using radio frequency transmission. The technology also helps prevent drivers from locking their keys in the vehicle,” it says. “Not surprisingly, thieves have found a way to partially outwit the new technology using electronic ‘scanner boxes.’ These small, handheld devices can pop some factory-made electronic locks in seconds, allowing thieves to get into the vehicle and steal personal items left inside.”

The existence of such a scanner box is very much in question, as are assertions that such a universal master key can be purchased for as little as $17; So is any notion that the crime is widespread. If any law enforcement agency has seized such a device, we are all waiting for it to be put on display.

How would such a magic device work? By tricking your car into thinking your key fob is nearby and opening the door in response to a handle jiggle; or perhaps by amplifying the signal it sends out, or by intercepting that signal and copying it somehow. Or hackers could “guess” the code for opening a car, if the code were poorly constructed. Here’s a great explanation of how it might work, and why it’s a major challenge unlikely to be used by street thugs.

Could such a hack exist? Well, of course, says embedded device security expert Philip Koopman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon. Koopman actually worked on earlier generation designs for key fobs.

“I would not at all be surprised if the Bad Guys have figured out that some manufacturer has bad security and how to attack it,” he said. “There is nothing really new here, other than general lack of people to admit that if you cut corners on security you will get burned, and an insistence by manufacturers and suppliers that known bad practices are adequate.”

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