Most of us have never considered the intricate electronic workings, programs, and computer systems that are used in our vehicles. It is hard to believe the technological advancements that we have seen in the car industry in the last 30 years as computers become an ever-improving and all-encompassing technology present in all aspects of life.
If you have bought a car that was manufactured since the turn of the millennia, then your car is almost guaranteed to be run by an intricate system of computers who collaborate to keep your car operating smoothly. The newer your car, the more advanced the computer system working within it.
Car keys, in particular, have advanced from a standard metal key to an electronic remote that in some cases can start your car, open the windows, open and close the trunk and even adjust the thermostat from a distance. Most of us have pushed to start options in our vehicles and other keyless functions which allow us to lock, unlock and start our cars without ever taking out the key by simply grabbing the door handle or pressing a button! We are living in the FUTURE!
A few weeks ago I stopped by to visit my parents and borrowed my dad’s truck for an errand. My dad is a simple man who sees no purpose in extravagance. His theory on life is if it works don’t fix it, so naturally his truck is ANCIENT. Alas, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain standard of engine starting, and turning the metal key to his early 1990’s Nissan Frontier felt somewhat parallel to cranking a Model T.
I was so happy to get back to the luxury of my new(ish) car. That is until I began preparing the research for this article. I was shocked to learn that computers don’t stop at your physical vehicle. Even your car keys have a small computer within them which can contain all sorts of information on you and your car!
Even more unbelievable is that these computer systems, including your car keys, can be hacked and that information is then made freely available to anyone who successfully breaks into the vehicle’s computer.
As we’ve discussed, most vehicles today are keyless entry, and there is more technology at our fingertips than we are aware of. So what type of information is stored on something so small and simple such as a key fob for cars with keyless entry? And what information is available if someone successfully accesses your vehicle’s internal computer? Well first let’s discuss how someone would retrieve the data from your vehicle.
How Does Vehicle Hacking Work?
Vehicle hacking, or the process of breaking into the electronic components of a vehicle to retrieve information or access to the car without the keys, is a process that both government agencies and auto thieves alike use (albeit for different intended purposes). Unfortunately neither are generally in your favor.
Thieves want access to your vehicle’s computer so that they can do things like unlock the doors, start the engine, and disengage the alarm. So basically to assist them in any illegal activities they may be doing.
On the other foot, government agencies use information scraped from vehicles in investigations and prosecutions to determine if a person is telling the truth in relation to a potential crime they may have committed. This data contains information involving the person’s car such as the last time it was driven, the current fuel levels, etc.
In some parts of the world these government agencies will give or sell this data to insurance companies for their investigations into auto claims.
Insurance companies use this data to prove false claims of auto theft. One of the largest forensic research labs uses information stored on keys to help prevent insurance companies from paying out false claims of theft. In the last several years they have saved these companies over 100 million dollars.
While this is great for the insurance companies… It’s also, well, a bit creepy? Unfortunately in the world we live in most of your personal information is freely available to anyone who knows where to look and break-in.
Computers, phones, home personal assistants, cars… heck, even my dog’s collar contains a GPS tracking chip not to mention the microchip embedded under his skin which tells anyone with the proper reader that he belongs to me. Well, add your car keys to the long list of items you use on a daily basis that store your personal information.
When the government or a thief is trying to access your vehicle they are going to use software or software engineers to help them accomplish their goal. All they need is a simple (or not so simple) decoding program or bypass system and they have access to everything that your car has to offer.
Your Car Is A Network
A car will typically consist of multiple computer systems that control functions like windows or locks for one example. All of these computers are called electronic control units or ECU’s and they communicate with each other over a network.
Most vehicles will have two networks, one for the essential engine functions and powertrain messages, and another for other things like lights, locks, and stereo. The critical network which contains the engine controls are typically faster and more secure.
You can connect to these networks usually through a car’s OBD- II port which was made standard in vehicles in 1996. You can find it on the driver’s side of your car usually to the left of the steering wheel. The OBD- II port uses 5 protocols to connect, at the manufacturer’s discretion. Some protocols are more common and popular than others.
To access the networks from the OBD- II port a hacker or the vehicle owner will need to use a device that is capable of interpreting the particular protocol of the vehicle. From there, the data will be downloaded, decoded, reversed and several other complicated programmer steps which we won’t get into now, but will be a potential topic for another day. If you want more information on this check out this site
So What Information Can They Access
The simple answer is everything. When the last time your car was driven, the current odometer mileage, fuel levels, simple controls like ignition and locking functions, lights, vehicle identification number… The list goes on! There are even programs that can replicate your key from a laptop, making it simple for someone to have access to what is inside your vehicle and even steal the car entirely by accessing the OBD-II port.
So What Can You Do To Protect Your Car?
Well, first and foremost you want to keep your car locked up at all times. Leaving a vehicle unlocked will not only give someone access to whatever you have been keeping in your car, but it will also give them access to your car’s OBD- II. They won’t need tools, it is easily accessible from your driver side door. From there a simple plugin will give a hacker access to anything that your car has to offer.
Something else you can do to protect yourself is to make sure you have comprehensive coverage on your vehicle. This is just a good idea in general. Comprehensive coverage is going to insure your vehicle for things that don’t happen in a collision or when you are driving the car. So if you get rear-ended, your liability and collision coverage will cover your repairs whereas things like flood protection and theft protection would be covered by a comprehensive insurance package.
Another great idea is to store your key fob in a Faraday pouch. Faraday pouches were invented to prevent all signals from reaching whatever is inside. It’s essentially a small canvas or sometimes leather pouch that is lined with a technology that blocks all frequencies including wifi, Bluetooth, NFC, cellular, GPS, radio, and RFID. It even provides EMF protection against the long term effects of EMF radiation.
This is obviously not able to protect your car entirely but it can be useful in protecting your key fob. It can also be a great resource for protecting bank card information which can also be intercepted from a distance.
The brand that is trusted by the U.S. Military and is patented is called Silent Pocket and I’ve attached the link to their Amazon page below. There are other knock off brands that can work as well so long as you do your research and pick a reputable brand.
Other than these relatively simple measures, there, unfortunately, isn’t a whole lot else you can do. Car manufacturers are aware of vehicle hackers and make strides every year to ensure their vehicle’s computer systems are more secure. Unfortunately, hackers tend to stay one step ahead of the manufacturers and are also bringing new innovation to improve their illicit activities. Newer cars will have more tracking features and store more data in their complex computer networks, but they will be less penetrable to hackers. It’s really a trade-off.