[Paleopsych] NYT: Graduate Cryptographers Unlock Code of 'Thiefproof' Car Key
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Sat Jan 29 16:32:10 UTC 2005
Graduate Cryptographers Unlock Code of 'Thiefproof' Car Key
January 29, 2005
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
BALTIMORE - Matthew Green starts his 2005 Ford Escape with a
duplicate key he had made at Lowe's. Nothing unusual about that,
except that the automobile industry has spent millions of dollars to
keep him from being able to do it.
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
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.
The computer scientists are not doing R.&D. for the Mafia. Aviel D.
Rubin, a professor of computer science who led the team, said his
three graduate students did what security experts often do: showed the
lack of robust security in important devices that people use every
"What we find time and time again is the security is overlooked and
not done right," said Dr. Rubin, who has exposed flaws in electronic
voting systems and wireless computer networks.
David Wagner, an assistant professor of computer science at the
University of California, Berkeley, who reviewed a draft of a paper by
the Hopkins team, called it "great research," adding, "I see it as an
early warning" for all radio frequency ID systems.
The "immobilizer" technology used in the keys has been an enormous
success. Texas Instruments alone has its chips in an estimated 150
million keys. Replacing the key on newer cars can cost hundreds of
dollars, but the technology is credited with greatly reducing auto
theft. - Early versions of in-key chips were relatively easy to clone,
but the Texas Instruments chips are considered to be among the best.
Still, the amount of computing the chip can do is restricted by the
fact that it has no power of its own; it builds a slight charge from
an electromagnetic field from the car's transmitter.
Cracking the system took the graduate students three months, Dr. Rubin
said. "There was a lot of trial and error work with, every once in a
while, a little 'Aha!' "
The Hopkins researchers got unexpected help from Texas Instruments
itself. They were able to buy a tag reader directly from the company,
which sells kits for $280 on its Web site. They also found a general
diagram on the Internet, from a technical presentation by the
company's German division. The researchers wrote in the paper
describing their work that the diagram provided "a useful foothold"
into the system. (The Hopkins paper, which is online at
www.rfidanalysis.org, does not provide information that might allow
its work to be duplicated.
The researchers discovered a critically important fact: the encryption
algorithm used by the chip to scramble the challenge uses a relatively
short code, known as a key. The longer the code key, which is measured
in bits, the harder it is to crack any encryption system.
"If you were to tell a cryptographer that this system uses 40-bit
keys, you'd immediately conclude that the system is weak and that
you'd be able to break it," said Ari Juels, a scientist with the
research arm of RSA Security, which financed the team and collaborated
The team wrote software that mimics the system, which works through a
pattern of challenge and response. The researchers took each chip they
were trying to clone and fed it challenges, and then tried to
duplicate the response by testing all 1,099,511,627,776 possible
encryption keys. Once they had the right key, they could answer future
Mr. Sabetti of Texas Instruments argues that grabbing the code from a
key would be very difficult, because the chips have a very short
broadcast range. The greatest distance that his company's engineers
have managed in the laboratory is 12 inches, and then only with large
antennas that require a power source.
Dr. Rubin acknowledged that his team had been able to read the keys
just a few inches from a reader, but said many situations could put an
attacker and a target in close proximity, including crowded elevators.
The researchers used several thousand dollars of off-the-shelf
computer equipment to crack the code, and had to fill a back seat of
Mr. Green's S.U.V. with computers and other equipment to successfully
imitate a key. But the cost of equipment could be brought down to
several hundred dollars, Dr. Rubin said, and Adam Stubblefield, one of
the Hopkins graduate students, said, "We think the entire attack could
be done with a device the size of an iPod."
The Texas Instruments chips are also used in millions of the Speedpass
tags that drivers use to buy gasoline at ExxonMobil stations without
pulling out a credit card, and the researchers have shown that they
can buy gas with a cracked code. A spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, Prem
Nair, said the company used additional antifraud measures, including
restrictions that only allow two gas purchases per day.
"We strongly believe that the Speedpass devices and the checks that we
have in place are much more secure than those using credit cards with
magnetic stripes," she said.
The team discussed its research with Texas Instruments before making
the paper public. Matthew Buckley, a spokesman for RSA Security, said
his company, which offers security consulting services and is
developing radio frequency ID tags that resist unauthorized
eavesdropping, had offered to work with Texas Instruments free of
charge to address the security issues.
Dr. Wagner said that what graduate students could do, organized crime
could also do. "The white hats don't have a monopoly on cryptographic
expertise," he said.
Dr. Rubin said that if criminals did eventually duplicate his
students' work, people could block eavesdroppers by keeping the key or
Speedpass token in a tinfoil sheath when not in use. But Mr. Sabetti,
the Texas Instruments executive, said such precautions were
unnecessary. "It's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," he
Dan Bedore, a spokesman for Ford, said the company had confidence in
the technology. "No security device is foolproof," he said, but "it's
a very, very effective deterrent" to drive-away theft. "Flatbed trucks
are a bigger threat," he said, "and a lot lower tech."
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