High-tech Car Theft: Exploring the Ones and Zeros of Getting from A to B

Category Technology

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Car theft has evolved from physical carjacking into high-tech hijacking. Thieves can use wireless keys, device-to-device relaying, RFID tags, and immobilizers to gain access to the vehicles. Recent technology aims to make the theft more difficult but might backfire on the vehicle's owner if not used properly.

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These days, cars are computer centers on wheels. Today’s vehicles can contain over 100 computers and millions of lines of software code. These computers are all networked together and can operate all aspects of your vehicle.

It’s not surprising, then, that car theft has also become high-tech. The computers in a vehicle can be divided into four categories. Many computers are dedicated to operating the vehicle’s drive train, including controlling the fuel, battery or both, monitoring emissions and operating cruise control. The second category is dedicated to providing safety. These computers collect data from the vehicle and the outside environment and provide functions like lane correction, automatic braking and backup monitoring. The third category is infotainment systems that provide music and video and can interface with your personal devices through Bluetooth wireless communications. Many vehicles can also connect to cellular services and provide Wi-Fi connectivity. The final category is the navigation system, including the car’s GPS system.

Modern car theft isn't limited to just the physical taking of a car. Hackers are increasingly using technology to remotely access cars and steal them.

Computers in one category often need to communicate with computers in another category. For example, the safety system must be able to control the drive train and the infotainment systems. One difference between the network in your car and a typical computer network is that all devices in the car trust each other. Therefore, if an attacker can access one computer, they can easily access other computers in the car.

Most new cars also now have Tracking Devices installed, making it easier for police to locate the stolen vehicle.

As with any new technology, some aspects of today’s cars make it harder for thieves, and some make it easier. There are several methods of stealing a car that are enabled by today’s technology.

Hijacking wireless keys .

One of the high-tech features is the use of keyless entry and remote start. Keyless entry has become common on many vehicles and is very convenient. The fob you have is paired to your car using a code that both your car and fob know, which prevents you from starting other cars. The difference between keyless entry and the remotes that unlock your car is that keyless entry fobs are always transmitting, so when you get near your car and touch the door, it will unlock. You had to press a button for old fobs to unlock the car door and then use your key to start the car.

Stolen cars can be used for a wide range of criminal activities, from transporting drugs to money laundering.

The first keyless fobs transmitted a digital code to the car, and it would unlock. Thieves quickly realized they could eavesdrop on the radio signal and make a recording. They could then "replay" the recording and unlock the car. To help with security, the newest fobs use a one-time code to open the door.

One method of stealing cars involves using two devices to build an electronic bridge between your fob and your car. One person goes near the car and uses a device to trick the car into sending a digital code used to verify the owner’s fob. The thief’s device sends that signal to an accomplice standing near the owner’s home, which transmits a copy of the car’s signal. When the owner’s fob replies, the device near the house sends the fob signal to the device near the car, and the car opens. The thieves can then drive off, but once they tinfeld he code transmission, the car will not be able to remotely start.

It is estimated that as many as 1,000,000 cars are stolen in the United States each year.

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