The merging of computers and cars has done wonderful things: improved fuel efficiency; ensured that you never get lost (or at least not for long); and helped to track every aspect of your car’s performance and offer up diagnostics for your mechanic. And, of course, there’s the cool little keys that will unlock the car as you get close to it. That last one, unfortunately, isn’t quite so good now that hackers have cracked the code of how to unlock your car remotely.
Don Bailey and Matthew Solnick invented this contraption, and they call it “war texting.” It works like this: Your car can send and receive wireless signals, which is how it interacts with your key fob or other device. Generally these cars use cellular networks; they’re cheap, widely available, and pretty much everybody owns a cell phone these days, making it easy for even the least technologically-savvy customer to use. Using parts you can buy in any electronics store, Bailey and Solnick reverse-engineered the cars’ wireless systems in a few hours. Then it’s just a matter of finding your individual car’s network and sending it the command via text message. Voila, your car is unlocked.
Fortunately for car owners everywhere, Bailey and Solnick are “white hats”; hackers whose job it is to find system vulnerabilities before the bad guys, puzzle out how they might be attacked, and then create a defense against the attack. Unfortunately for the carmakers, Bailey and Solnick happen to be really good at their jobs: they cracked OnStar, Ford Sync, BMW Assist and Hyundai Blue Link in the space of a few hours. Even more unfortunately, their genius is not limited to just cars: security cameras, traffic systems, and others use telephone frequencies to accept orders and deliver information, and thus all of these systems are vulnerable.
Which raises the all-important question: how do you protect your car from thieves? First of all, it’s worth remembering that these tools aren’t in the hands of your average car thief yet: Bailey and Solnick are security professionals with advanced degrees, while your average car thief is a usually high school dropout with a brick. The carmakers are obviously working hard on a solution that might be implemented by the time you read this: in fact, your car might be updating its software right now, to prevent against vulnerabilities like this.
There’s also the fact that car theft has actually dropped to a forty-year low: there just aren’t that many car thieves out there right now.
Lastly, most cars have a second layer of protection; a certain key needs to be present to start the car. If possible, go into your car and disable any automatic start functions, which will guarantee that the only way a thief can move the car anywhere is by using a tow truck. Finally, make sure that you have copies of all your car’s identifying information: VIN number, the title, any repair bills you may have had to pay. Keep that information in a safe place so if your car is stolen, you can get details to the police immediately.
Hackers may be able to pop your locks, but with a little foresight, you’ll be the one shutting them down.