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Court blocks scientists from revealing hack for millions of car keys

July 29, 2013

A group of scientists based in Britain and the Netherlands has cracked the algorithms used in keys to start Porsches, Audis, Bentleys and Lamborghinis. The scientists had planned on revealing their findings in an academic paper, but a British high court banned them from doing so for now, citing the danger of gifting such information to car hackers and thieves.

Flavio Garcia is a lecturer in computer science at the University of Birmingham, and, along with his colleagues Baris Ege and Roel Verdult from the Stichting Katholieke University in the Netherlands, dissected the codes that the keys transmit to the vehicle for unlocking and starting. The cars in question all belong to the Volkswagen, and it was VW that pleaded with the courts to block the planned unveiling of the findings at a seminar in Washington, D.C., in August.

The scientists say they aim to improve safety for everyone, uncovering existing weaknesses and sharing them with the public in an effort to drive more secure systems. The Guardian reports that during proceedings in court, it emerged that the software behind the code has been available online since 2009.

Car hacking has been in the news of late, most recently where a couple of guys from DARPA, the Department of Defense’s research wing, showcased modern capabilities to a Forbes reporter jerking the steering wheel, disengaging the brakes, tugging on the seat belt tensioners and altering the fuel gauge to full when in fact it was three-fourths empty. Those deceptions required the hackers sit in the back seat and plug directly into the vehicle's computers. It does, however, offer a glimpse into the potential dangers faced when the smartest of minds are let loose, especially as computers become more essential in modern vehicles.

To date, thieves have found it easier to bribe someone into giving them unauthorized access to automakers' database of key codes that can be used to make copies rather than trying to hack the key codes themselves. It now seems only a matter of time before the smarter ones find ways to do without the middleman.