Car RFID Security System Cracked

29 Jan ’05

As I close in on the final pages of Bruce Schneier’s Secrets and Lies, it’s interesting to see YASOAESC – yet another story (NYT) of an encryption system cracked.  This time, it’s a group of students from Johns Hopkins …. <sigh> these kids today.  Money quotes:

Mr. Green, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, is part of a team that plans to announce on Jan. 29 that it has cracked the security behind “immobilizer” systems from Texas Instruments Inc. The systems reduce car theft, because vehicles will not start unless the system recognizes a tiny chip in the authorized key. They are used in millions of Fords, Toyotas and Nissans.

All that would be required to steal a car, the researchers said, is a moment next to the car owner to extract data from the key, less than an hour of computing, and a few minutes to break in, feed the key code to the car and hot-wire it.

An executive with the Texas Instruments division that makes the systems did not dispute that the Hopkins team had cracked its code, but said there was much more to stealing a car than that. The devices, said the executive, Tony Sabetti, “have been fraud-free and are likely to remain fraud-free.”

The implications of the Hopkins finding go beyond stealing cars.

Variations on the technology used in the chips, known as RFID for radio frequency identification, are widely used. Similar systems deduct highway tolls from drivers’ accounts and restrict access to workplaces.

Wal-Mart is using the technology to track inventory, the Food and Drug Administration is considering it to foil drug counterfeiting, and the medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles, plans to implant chips in cadavers to curtail unauthorized sale of body parts.

The Johns Hopkins researchers say that if other radio frequency ID systems are vulnerable, the new field could offer far less security than its proponents promise.

Previous post:

Next post: