Electronic locks and key fobs are not something new. These are heady days of IoT and all things digital, even door locks are getting smarter. However, these keyless systems come with their own risks.
If you are someone who forgets their keys often, an electronic smart lock might feel like the answer to your prayers. But they are not without their flaws and vulnerabilities: if you can open them remotely, there is a chance that even “smart” thieves can do the same, without making a sound or arousing suspicion.
A Deviously Simple Technique
The technique that is most commonly attributed to break-ins involving electronic locks is code-grabbing. The basic principle is quite simple: when you press a key fob, it sends a unique code to the lock in your car using RF signals. The would-be thief waits nearby and uses a device to record these RF signals. Later, he can use the same code at his convenience to open the car.
Admittedly, code grabbing is a rather niche field requiring some advanced know-how about the technology involved in electronic locks and radio frequencies. But that doesn’t mean that it is hard. In fact, it has become easier to create code grabbing devices using parts available readily online. In 2015, a hacker created a device costing just $30, capable of breaking into cars and garages with ease.
Hard to Separate Myth from Fact
The scare surrounding code grabbing has been around since the first “remote keyless entry systems” (or RKEs) introduced in cars in the 1980s. It has evolved into something resembling an urban legend over the years, making it harder for us to sift fact from fiction. Even the popular fact-checking site Snopes gives it a mixed rating, meaning it is at least partially true.
As Locks Get Smarter, So Do the Thieves
What we do know is that thieves have successfully used the technique in past to steal stuff from cars. The lock manufacturers countered this by attempting to plug the vulnerabilities in the older lock systems.
And so we arrive at a game that has been going on since the first locksmith created a lock-and-key system! Thieves always find a way to break the lock, without fail. Here is how this game has played out in recent years with electronic locks and key grabbing:
Basic Code Grabbing
Early RKE systems used a single unique code. Breaking this kind of lock was simple, as all you needed to do was grab that code once by standing near the victim while he/she uses the key fob. Since there was only one key code, you could use it any time and open the lock. This was the first-gen code grabbing system.
Long Distance Code Relay
In the mid-1990s, the fixed code system was replaced by a more sophisticated rolling code system. So the code grabbing technique also had to evolve. According to hackers and security experts, the flaws in this system can be exploited using a technique called code relay.
One system, discovered by Chinese security experts, involves two thieves using two connected code grabbing devices. And the worst part is, those devices cost only $20.
One tails the owner of the car while the other stays by the car. Once the owner is far away, the relay system sends signals from the key to lock and back, fooling the security system into thinking that the key is close by.
Code Jam & Relay
Another simpler device developed uses a devilishly ingenious technique to beat modern rolling code locks. When the user presses the key fob, this system grabs the code and simultaneously jams that signal.
The user will naturally press the key a second time, releasing new code. The code grabber jams and saves this code as well.
Then, the device quickly sends the first code to the lock, opening it in the process. Now the thief has a second valid code which he/she can use at leisure to open that lock!
Should You Be Worried About Code Grabbing?
Despite a lot of myths and urban legends, code grabbing is all too real. Fortunately, it has been more of a niche activity so far. Then again, with a proliferation of smart keyless locks, that could very well change in the near future.
If you want to feel absolutely safe, you might want to stick with your trustworthy locksmith for now! And when carrying a key fob, try to keep it in shielded metal packaging to deny the opportunistic code grabber the chance to steal your precious car or garage keys.
Another thing you can do is to use a rolling code technology. This can help you protect your car from thrives are pro at using code grabbing technique. Here, your key fob will transmit a signal of different frequency each time you press the button. This makes it almost impossible for the thief to catch your code that your car needs to validate the fob’s identity.
Make sure you don’t leave any expensive item in your car. A laptop, smart phone or your wallet lying in a plain sight can attract unwanted attention, increasing the risk of car theft.