How Hackers Can Grab Your Car

PHOTO: Car thief

With AAA predicting the biggest Labor Day travel weekend since the recession hit, many Americans will be stealing away for that final summer trip. Unfortunately, they won't be the only ones stealing.

There's a new type of crime happening on America's highways and byways. A nationwide crime spree in the making, if you will, whereby high-tech thieves can unlock vehicles easier than you'd like to think possible.

We're way beyond rocks, cobblestones, baseball bats, shims and crowbars now. Using improvised electronic devices that recreate the same signals as the key fobs many of us carry, thieves can pop the lock on your car from afar, then rifle through your belongings and steal whatever they like, all without the noise and trouble of breaking a window or jimmying a lock.

Once the stuff of urban legend, this kind of crime is now on the rise, according to police. "We believe that this code-grabbing technology was utilized and we are looking into it," Sgt. Andrew Schoeff of the Chicago Police Department told ABC News after thieves there broke into multiple cars in one neighborhood.

Technology experts have warned for years that key fob crimes were possible. In 2011 Swiss researchers announced they had cracked the encrypted remote entry systems of ten car models by eight different manufacturers, using equipment that cost as little as $100. That research has now become reality, as crime rings from Chicago to Long Beach have figured it out.

The way this crime works is still somewhat of a mystery in crime-fighting circles. And while there are doubtless ways to avoid becoming a victim, I'm not sure what they might be beyond owning a car that doesn't use the fob system.

A Terrifying Turn

While it's unsettling to have your car invaded or stolen while you're on a Labor Day trip with your family, it's not life threatening. What scares me is when a car hacker evolves from messing with your doors to invading your car's computer system.

The possibility of this even stranger and more dangerous crime is lurking on the horizon. Most modern cars use computers to control everything from engine compression to cruise control, airbags and brakes. Those computers communicate with each other on open networks. Using an $80,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), two researchers recently hacked the onboard computers of a Toyota Prius and a Ford Escape SUV.

They made the Prius accelerate and brake, as well as jerk the wheel while traveling at high speeds. They managed to turn the Ford's steering wheel at low speeds and disable the brakes, which caused researcher Charlie Miller to drive the SUV into his garage and totally destroy his own lawnmower. This is the stuff of nightmares.

"Once you are through that initial barrier, you can and will be able to do almost anything you want to," security researcher Don Bailey recently told NPR.

Beyond Account Takeovers

It gets worse. At last month's Def Con, an annual convention for hackers, Miller and his co-researcher Chris Valasek showed a packed audience how they could drive a brand-new Prius using a Nintendo video game controller from the 1980s. They did it by plugging a laptop into the car's On-board Diagnostics (OBD) jack, which mechanics use to diagnose mechanical problems. Experts believe that soon it will be possible to accomplish this by way of a wireless hack.

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