A Computer Helps Thieves To Commit The Perfect Crime

December 02, 1998

THREE million cars on Britain's roads can be unlocked easily by hackers using a handheld computer. And if they steal the valuables from inside your car, the stealth with which they break in means you may never know that they have been there.

Using the right software, it only takes about 10 seconds to copy the codes from the remote controls used to operate a modern car's central-locking system. A thief using this technique would be almost undetectable. And your insurance company may refuse to pay up for theft which occurs in this way.

The technique was recently discovered by Lars Sørensen, a computer journalist on PC World, when he was trying out a new software package on his Palm Pilot, a "palmtop" computer. The computer has a built-in infrared port, with software designed to record the infrared signals from TV and video remote controls, enabling owners to use the Palm Pilot to control all their gadgets.

However, Sørensen also tried to record the signal from a friend's infrared control for locking a car. To his surprise, he was able to use the code to unlock the car and disable the alarm. "This is definitely a threat to car owners, because someone could take belongings from their car without leaving any sign of a break-in," he says.

The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire, which approves locking systems for cars, believes that as many as three million out of the 22 million cars on the road have infrared remote controls that are vulnerable to palmtop-wielding hackers.

Tim Shallcross, a security expert with Britain's Automobile Association says "there have been code grabbers available for a few years", but these were specialist devices. However, he adds that modern systems should not be vulnerable to this sort of attack since they use sophisticated rolling codes, which change each time the key is used, making it virtually impossible to predict the next one. Some systems have as many as 1064 different code sequences, which would take even a powerful computer months to break.

Nevertheless, one of the cars Sørensen hacked into, in Denmark, was a 1998 model. This alarmed Mark Inman, a security researcher at Thatcham. "The problem is, there are different specifications for different countries," he says.

And if phantom thieves do steal valuables from your car, your insurance company may not believe you. "If there's no obvious sign of forced entry then the first thing insurance companies will be concerned with is whether the claim is genuine," says Malcolm Tarling of the Association of British Insurers.

"Grabbing a code is like lock-picking," says Inman, "though it isn't as easy as it sounds." Capturing a signal as it bounces off a car would make it difficult to get a complete code, he says.

However, a new infrared amplifier for the Palm Pilot is due to go on sale soon, making it easier for thieves to grab the signal from a distance. 3Com, the company that makes Palm Pilots, says it is taking this problem "very seriously" and is investigating.
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