Your car is always listening. Not for your voice, like the Amazon Echo or Siri, but for an electronic signal, such as the coded "unlock" signal from your electronic key fob. If it's a newer car model, you might not have to press any buttons; just approach your car and the doors will unlock automatically. In some cars, the engine will even turn on.
Wirelessly unlocking your car is convenient, but it comes at a price. Specifically, the key fob's signal is easy for criminals to intercept. That lets them open your car without setting off any alarms. If you have a true keyless car model, they might be able to just drive away. Let's look at how criminals pull this off and what you can do to keep your car safe.
How your car's security system works
As you've probably noticed, you can't just open your car with any old radio signal. You need your specific key fob to do the job, and there's a reason.
A key fob uses a computer chip to create a unique code that it sends to your car's security system. The car also has a chip using the same algorithm to generate codes. If the codes match up, then the car opens. There's a bit more to it than that, but that's the basics.
How criminals attack #1
Since each key fob/car security pair is unique, and each one can create billions of codes, hackers don't stand a chance. Or at least that was the theory. It turns out a popular system from Megamos Crypto isn't as secure everyone thought.
Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands and the University of Birmingham found that by intercepting the wireless signal just twice, they could narrow down the possible combinations from billions to just 200,000. After that, a computer can figure out the code in just half an hour and unlock the car.
In a real-world application, a thief could sit on a street gathering wireless signals as car owners enter and exit their vehicles. Then overnight they could steal a number of cars. Click here to find out if your car is at risk from this kind of attack.
Still, that takes a skilled car thief or hacker to carry out this kind of attack, so the odds of it happening to you are slim. However, thanks to always-on key fobs, there's another risk that's much more likely to happen.