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6:46 AM Tue, Sept. 25th

Security expert weighs in on car key fobs

If you were online at all Monday, July 9, you likely saw a story that was widely circulated describing a security expert’s warning that car key fobs need to be protected from hackers, and that wrapping them in foil will do the trick.

While it’s true, it’s not the major threat the story suggested, said Holly Hubert. She’s a retired FBI agent, who founded GlobalSecurityIQ and was quoted in the story.

“Most car fobs, actually, it’s totally not a threat for,” she said. “It isn’t until you press a button to unlock a car that it emits a signal,” which is what would-be thieves can capture and use.

Dr. Jon Haass,a cybersecurity expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said criminals who would take advantage of this technology typically work in larger cities, prowling large parking lots, to take advantage of the volume of people locking their doors remotely.

The tin-foil solution may have little effect anyway, he said. “Sometimes, I’ll get a little distance away from my car, and I’ll remember I didn’t lock it, and I’ll go and click it, and it’s still able to lock the car from 30 or 40 feet away,” Haass said, which is when the signal could be captured.

Haass said there’s actually an easier way to steal cars that thieves have known for years: the key fob manufacturers reuse codes, so some people looking to take a car will go into a large lot and simply try activating the door locks with their own fob, hoping it may open someone else’s door.

“You might want to go to your auto dealer and see if you can get an updated controller,” he said, noting that some companies have issued recalls on their fobs.

Hubert said there are newer fobs that are always sending a signal so the door will open when the driver approaches the car. But it’s a short-range signal, she added, which makes the threat “very small.” In this case, the foil or a commercial product called a Faraday envelope could help.

“They’re inexpensive,” she said, and it’s a “good practice (to use one), just like an RFID wallet,” which protects credit cards with a chip from having data stolen.