Keyless Entry Systems are really Theft-assistance systems

Bright-eyed Toyota product planner: “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we could have the car open automatically, when the owner of the car walks up to it?”

Naive Toyota Engineer: “Yeah! Let’s make a Passive Keyless Entry and Start (PKES) system. The car will call out to the key and will open up if it finds the key.”

Skeptical pointy-haired boss: “Whoa – it sounds like this could be a security problem. What if I’m 20 feet away from my car, around the corner? Will some shady character be able to pull the door handle and gain entry?”

Naive Toyota Engineer: “No worries! We’ll make the radio communication work from only a few feet away. The key will HAVE TO BE right next to the car.”

All: “OK, good plan!”

NYTimes article on an interesting and potentially very expensive vulnerability in systems that allow keyless entry to automobiles. This “innovation” allows you to simply walk up to your car with the key in your pocket, and pull the door handle, to get the car to unlock for you.

How does it work? On the handle pull, the car attempts to contact the key wirelessly, and upon getting a valid response, unlocks. What could possibly go wrong?

Thieves are using simple power amplifiers to extend the distance over which this communication works, so they can open the car in the driveway at night, just by pulling on the handle, while your key is by your bedside. Not only do they gain entry to your vehicle and its contents, they can also start the car, and drive off. The engine won’t stop even if the key goes out of range.

I wonder if Toyota have a software mechanism to turn off this capability. The NYTimes article suggests putting the key in a Faraday cage, like your freezer.

Interesting in-depth analysis of the vulnerability, from 2011, here.

Disclaimer: I don’t drive a Prius. Also I don’t work for Toyota, but I think their vehicles are pretty good, generally. I guess there are other automobile makes that have similar vulnerabilities.

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