Cars with Keyless Entry Fall Prey to Antenna Hack

Automakers such as Audi wowed CES attendees last week with their gadgetry. Problem is, said gadgetry is proving to be a boon to car thieves, too. Last week, university researchers demonstrated how they could use antennas to hack into 10 models of cars that use keyless entry and start systems.

A keyless entry requires the key to be within a few meters of the car. When the car detects the key, that's the authorization it needs to open the door and start the engine. Researchers from the system security group at ETH Zurich in Switzerland tricked cars into thinking the key was nearby. They used a dual antenna system built from easily obtained materials that could cost as little as $150 (or as much as $1000). One antenna was placed close to the car, and the other was placed within eight meters of the key. They tried the trick with antennas that were connected via a cable and a fully wireless system. They had to speed up the spoofed key signal because a car won't respond if a signal takes too long to arrive.

They tricked 10 out 10 cars and both the wired and wireless methods proved effective.

The Audi E-Tron hybrid sports a lot technology, including a display instead of a dashboard.

Boris Danev- ETH Zurich
System Security Group
Stealing cars through the two-antenna method wouldn't be a piece of cake. Some social engineering would be required to get within eight meters of the key which would likely be located within the pocket or purse of the car owner. The second antenna would need to be placed near the car, perhaps with the help of an accomplice. But, the antenna trick could work through glass. So those that store keys near a window might want to rethink that. (We can imagine the hack being featured on an episode of Burn Notice, looking easier than it is.)

More disturbing is that this new research simply adds to the growing number of ways found to hack into today's latest, greatest cars.

Last August, researchers at the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University demonstrated how to hack in and "hijack" the wireless pressure sensors built into many cars' tires. It's hard to PWN a car by controlling the tire pressure sensor, however -- though the method could be used to secretly keep tabs on a car. More worrisome was research published by University of California, San Diego, in May that showed how hackers could gain control of a car's systems by breaking into a car's diagnostics port. With that an attacker gains control over brakes, engine, and, in many cases, door locks.