Watch out for the hi-tech car thieves

Technology has made vehicles safer and more efficient but thieves are exploiting weaknesses in the latest systems to compromise security and steal high-performance cars to order.

One of the most common hi-tech thefts, widely known as car hacking, targets vehicles with keyless ignition systems. With this the thieves use a hand-held radio jammer to block the signal to remote locking car keys. This renders them useless and, although the driver will think they have locked their vehicle, it will remain unlocked.

The thieves are then able to gain access to the vehicle and, within minutes, can re-programme a blank electronic key to start and steal the vehicle. Even where the vehicle has a more traditional key-operated ignition, the thieves are still able to gain access to the vehicle and steal any valuables.

The latest potential threat is even more sinister. This exploits the infotainment systems that are becoming increasingly popular in vehicles. These systems allow drivers to play music, make phone calls and view vehicle information but technology security experts have demonstrated that it is possible to hack into them by sending data through the digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio signals.

This is particularly concerning as these infotainment systems are often connected to the same computer systems that manage the vehicle’s steering and braking. This means a hacker could take control of a vehicle and potentially put the occupants’ lives in danger. Further, security experts have also demonstrated that, with a strong enough transmitter, it could be possible to hack many vehicles at the same time.

One high profile example saw two US security researchers hack into a vehicle, a Jeep Cherokee, being driven by a journalist from Wired magazine. Once hooked up to its computers, they were able to take control of the radio, air conditioning and the windscreen wipers.

Understandably, the vehicle manufacturers are taking these threats seriously and are looking at ways to improve security and deter the criminals. For example, after its Jeep Cherokee was hacked, Chrysler issued a security patch to secure any vulnerabilities in its systems.

In the UK, the motor insurers’ automotive research centre, Thatcham Research, is also looking at ways to combat these hi-tech forms of vehicle crime. As well as using its position to influence vehicle and product manufacturers to take a coordinated approach to developing security solutions, it is also a member of the Cyber Security Consortium for Connected Vehicles.

Through this it is looking to develop new standards around cyber security to promote consumer confidence.

Reviving some of the security measures that were commonplace in the 1990s will also help to reduce the risk of theft from car hacking.

“Park vehicles in a secure, well-lit area,” explains Mark Ashwood, Motor Trade Underwriting Account Manager, “preferably in a locked garage or compound if possible. A range of security devices are also available to deter thieves. These include alarms, immobilisers and tracking devices as well as steering wheel locks and locking wheel nuts.”

This article originally appeared on Allianz.