How secure is a car with a 'remote keyless entry' system?
September 25, 2016 12:01 PM   Subscribe

I just had to get a new car, and the one I got (a 2016 Honda HR-V) has remote keyless entry plus a pushbutton start/stop for the ignition. How secure is this when it comes to car thieves?

I was perfectly happy with my old car, but unfortunately an idiot just totaled it: she didn't notice a red light because she was too busy fiddling with her @#$% cell phone. Okay, that's over and done with (and she's got the tickets to prove it!), so now I'm driving this shiny new Honda. I've always locked my car doors if I step more than a few feet away, and there's never anything left in sight to entice a thief; I'm wondering more about preventing car theft than a simpler smash-and-grab break-in.

Is there anything I could do, preferably short of getting something like The Club? I had an aftermarket ignition kill-switch installed in my old car; is that something I should --- or even can do, considering this thing's electronic locking system! --- do to make it more secure?
posted by easily confused to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure what makes you think that it's not secure now? I'm assuming you're talking about one of those proximity key fobs that unlocks your car when you approach it. It locks the car once you step away from it. There's not any way for a thief to get into your car that couldn't also be done on a car with regular keys...
posted by MsMolly at 12:13 PM on September 25, 2016

There is no reason at all to assume the keyless car is less secure. Quite the opposite. The immobiliser in the fob is as secure as the older style with a chip in the key, as a means of activating the immobiliser. The advances in technology between then and now mean the encryption/transfer of information between immobiliser and chip are more secure, in reality.

The lack of a physical key is not at all a drop in security. It is much, much easier to force a physical key lock than an electronic one.
posted by Brockles at 12:16 PM on September 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

The whole thing is based on proximity. The car will only unlock or start if your key fob thingy is within a certain distance.

The only way a car thief could gain access to the car is if they first stole your key fob. (Or break a window or something, I guess, but then that would probably set off an alarm of some kind. Also, without the key fob, the thing won't start.)

Are you thinking that a wily hacker could hack the remote keyless entry system? Because if that were a thing, A) why aren't these gifted hackers using their skills to do better crimes than steal cars, and B) why not at least steal *nicer* cars?
posted by Sara C. at 12:27 PM on September 25, 2016

You can see about halfway down this page that auto theft has been rapidly decreasing in the US, even as these systems become more ubiquitous.
posted by kickingtheground at 12:37 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

The thing you have to watch is how you lock your door. Personally I don't use the fob. I always lock it from the button inside the door. The problem with doing that is that sometimes if you're too close to the door, the fob in your pocket or purse sometimes triggers the system to automatically unlock the door (as the car is set up so that you can't lock your keys inside). There have been a few times I've come back to the car only to find the door which I locked was no longer locked. Now, I end up checking the door whenever I leave the car.

The other problem is that if there are times you want to lock your purse in the car, you can't do so if you have a spare set of keys in the purse. This has turned out to be a real pain in the neck for me, given that I always carry a spare set in my purse, and while I don't normally like to lock my purse in the trunk, there are times when I just have to do so.
posted by sardonyx at 12:46 PM on September 25, 2016

Ah, good --- it looks like my inner Luddite has been worrying for no reason!

This car has a button on the outside of the door handle that the salesguy told me to use to lock it --- I've been checking to be sure the little red indicator light in the dash lights up after I push that; I could also lock the car with a button on the fob, or as sardonyx suggests, with the button on the inside of the door. Would one method be preferred?
posted by easily confused at 12:49 PM on September 25, 2016

Either is fine. Personally I just don't like fobs, so I've been resorting to the button on the outside of the handle. It works. You can physically tell the door is secure. In truth, it just comes down to personal preference.
posted by sardonyx at 12:55 PM on September 25, 2016

The problem with fobs that automatically unlock the car via proximity is that there's concern that their transmit range can be amplified, which would mean that the car could unlock even if you're fifty feet away in your home. I'm not sure if this has been 100% proven or not, but here you go.
posted by destructive cactus at 1:09 PM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

My only word of caution is that it will now be possible for you to walk away from the car, with your key, and leave the car running. The car will not shut down when you leave the proximity zone -- it just won't be able to be started again if it stalls. I absentmindedly did this a couple of times when I drove one of these and it was unnerving.
posted by eugenen at 1:18 PM on September 25, 2016

This car has a button on the outside of the door handle that the salesguy told me to use to lock it -

The rationale behind this is that - theoretically - when you use the fob to unlock it, a suitably equipped thief could be scanning the area for the codes being sent from your fob to your car, note which car locked and which code caused it to happen, and clone that code to unlock your door.

Which is theoretically possible (or perhaps 'feasible' is a better word), but unlikely. ESPECIALLY if your car is worth less than $75-100K, because it's a big time investment and a lot of hassle and equipment and so is vanishingly unlikely for a non-luxury brand, to my logic. Its more likely you will drop your key and someone will just walk the area pressing the button trying to find your car before the fob battery runs out.
posted by Brockles at 1:23 PM on September 25, 2016

The biggest thing to be aware of is that you will rapidly lose the pull your key out of the ignition reflex, so then when you do drive a car with a more traditional key situation, you may leave the keys in the ignition and walk away.

Or maybe that's just me
posted by rockindata at 1:31 PM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Or to follow on rockindata's problem, I have a bad tendency to use my key lock the house, then walk to the car, have it unlock automatically, set the keys down on the center console, and then when I get out of my car at my destination forget to pick up the keys until I'm out and trying to lock the door (or halfway into the store or whatever).
posted by jferg at 1:45 PM on September 25, 2016

I have a 2016 civic that has the same system. I set it up in settings to do the walk away locking, and I simply listen for the beeps. Two beeps with a delay between means it locked. A rapid beep means I have to lock it with the fob or button on the handle. The system is good enough that over the last 6 months I haven't been confused or unsure whether my car was locked. One single time I fat-fingered the lock button and immediately unlocked it(since a finger around the handle unlocks it, it was a seriously fat finger), and the beeps were clear and I knew I'd made a mistake that was easy to fix.

I'm no security expert, but considering I was taught how to break into a car when I was a teenager (dad stuff, I didn't retain the info), I bet these systems are a LOT more secure.
posted by Pacrand at 1:46 PM on September 25, 2016

I'm no security expert, but considering I was taught how to break into a car when I was a teenager (dad stuff, I didn't retain the info), I bet these systems are a LOT more secure.
This is a *really* dangerous way to analyze things. Car security is pretty bad.

Extending the length of the keyless entry fobs has been demonstrated: There's no reason that these attacks need to be possible, and that they are shows a serious lack of foresight by the manufacturers.

Here's an article on IEEE Spectrum that claims
The security risk has grown to the point where insurance companies have begun refusing coverage to drivers in London who own keyless vehicles but don’t stash their expensive rides in underground parking lots or other secure locations, says an article in The Guardian. Car thieves have made plying their illicit trade much easier by simply bypassing the security of the keyless ignition systems with devices that are normally used by legitimate auto workshops for vehicle maintenance. The criminals have equipped themselves with these master keys by purchasing them on eBay.
posted by l_zzie at 2:55 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

sardonyx, if you wrap your spare keyfob in a couple of layers of aluminum foil, you should be able to keep it in your purse without your car "noticing" it.
posted by monotreme at 4:25 PM on September 25, 2016

Thanks monotreme, I'll give that a try.
posted by sardonyx at 5:05 PM on September 25, 2016

> ESPECIALLY if your car is worth less than $75-100K, because it's a big time investment and a lot of hassle and equipment and so is vanishingly unlikely for a non-luxury brand, to my logic.

Well, but the investment for the thief is basically a one-time investment to buy the electronics, and after that, it's just a time-investment to harvest the key-codes. If I have a device that can steal, say, all 2015 Hondas, and I'm willing to sit in a van at an unattended stadium parking lot, or badly patrolled high-end mall parking lot, or shady urban garage lot, I can harvest keys from Hondas all day, every day, and just steal key codes. Better still, pay some up-and-coming crook a few bucks to sit in that van or place hidden electronic gadgets that sniff for keyless entry keys. After that, it's a matter of stealing them, which may be done in the garage/lot or may be better to do by following the car (cheap GPS gadget mounted to car) followed by stealing them when they're at home. Sure, stealing cheap cars would take time to pay off my initial investment, but how many $40,000 cars, plus the occasional luxury model, would it take, if I could find a chop-shop willing to buy them?

Mostly, the question makes me think of this Top Gear prank (YTL, 1m45s is all you need), from the American Muscle Cars road-trip. I cued up the relevant section.
posted by Sunburnt at 8:21 PM on September 25, 2016

My 2016 Honda Accord was ransacked last week after I apparently forgot to lock it. The car itself wasn't stolen. I've been using the button on the door handle to lock the car and I thought the habit had fully sunk in. But my previous trip involved getting stuff out of the trunk and that may have been the source of my screw up. I'm not sure if I would've left the car unlocked using the typical fob system.

See, the trunk has an open button that works with the fob in your pocket, but that same button doesn't also lock the trunk (it just keeps springing it open). So to lock the car after getting something out of the trunk you either have to go back to a door handle or use the fob. Apparently it doesn't auto-lock after a set number of minutes if the fob is out of range. The settings don't seem to allow for that either but perhaps I am wrong about that.

A definite bummer but probably just my own mistake plus bad luck.
posted by mullacc at 11:41 AM on September 26, 2016

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