With many key fobs vulnerable to hacking unless they are, say, wrapped with aluminum foil, security experts say carmakers will soon require fingerprinting.
You heard correctly.
Fingerprints are required to cash checks at the bank.
Fingerprints are used to access mobile phones.
Cars are next. Not just to open the door, but to start the engine.
“This technology will be used in cars in two to four years,” said Godfrey Cheng, corporate vice president for Silicon Valley-based Synaptics. “Driver identification will be revolutionary.”
Understanding that car fobs present an increasing security risk, auto companies are following the lead of personal technology devices and moving toward vehicle access through fingerprinting, facial recognition and retina scans.
This is not Mission Impossible. This is real life.
Cybersecurity experts recommend that car owners go online and spend a few dollars to buy what’s called a Faraday Cage to shield key fob signals from potential theft. Imagine a traditional sandwich bag made of foil instead of plastic.
This is because newer cars with keyless starting are always waiting for the fob signal. Thieves can buy legitimate devices that amplify or record and replay the fob signal sitting unprotected in a purse, a pocket, on a counter at home or even just copy the code to access the vehicle.
Copying code from key fobs isn’t difficult. And this is something the auto industry and insurance companies are monitoring closely.
The cheap (or homemade) metal protection covers, named for the scientist who figured out how to block an electromagnetic field, can prevent thieves from having access to vehicles with a wireless fob. Currently, thieves can capture fob signals from outside a home, office or hotel room.
In the near future, fobs won’t disappear; they’ll be paired with biometrics.
“You’re no longer relying just on a fob. This will be a fob and a fingerprint,” Cheng said between meetings in Detroit. “We’ll cover touch, sight, hearing and voice. We’ll cover all the senses but taste and smell.”
“We’re making the car more secure. It’ll be a lot like online bank security. And if you can hack a bank or a car, wouldn’t it be more worth your time hacking a bank?” Cheng asked.
Rapidly evolving technology
Synaptics is best known as a leader in consumer technology products on items such as smart speakers that shoppers associate with Google and Amazon’s Alexa.
Recently, the company developed technology that allows drivers to adjust the heat dial on touch screens in freezing temperatures without removing thick gloves. Clients using these and other features include Ford, Porsche, Jaguar, Range Rover, Audi, BMW, Honda, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.
But where the industry is going – toward access that requires identifying body parts to circumvent concerns related to hacking – is unfolding rapidly.
Cheng was showing a prototype SUV to automakers and suppliers that had been modified to allow access with just a fingerprint. He snapped a photo of a would-be driver’s face using a computer notebook, scanned the driver’s fingerprint into the notebook and downloaded the biometric data into the SUV system.
Then Cheng programmed the car to accept the fingerprint as a driver, just as a car dealer would upon sale. The driver pressed a fingerprint sensor on the dashboard and started the engine.
“Tesla transformed the way people looked at the car,” he said. “People saw a future of cars that will be connected devices.”
Then he shut down the car to demonstrate something else. He reprogrammed the device to say that the driver who belonged to the fingerprint had skipped a car payment. Bam. Car wouldn’t start.
This sort of biometric program will allow vehicle owners to program the car to match the fingerprint – music choices, seat adjustment, navigation settings, temperature selection. This will allow parents to install “geofencing” limits, which control where teen drivers might go or how far.
“Let’s say we create the ‘teenager mode,’’’ Cheng explained. “You can restrict their access by time, and you can customize the amount of horsepower the teenager has, like if they borrow a Hellcat. It’s irresponsible to lend your 707-horsepower car to a teenager. In the old days, you only had the choice of giving someone the key or not. Now you can geofence them and give them time-based access.”
So that means the car is a lot like Cinderella’s carriage that turns into a pumpkin at midnight.
“Car companies are bringing high-speed connection to the cars, and biometrics are a necessary element of the connected car,” Cheng said. “Without secure biometric authentication, drivers would be distracted with passwords and pins. Fingerprint sensors offer state-of-the-art security as well as the convenience of touch.”
Biometric authentication could be in place with some products as soon as 2019, predicted Tamara Snow, director of interior systems and technology for North America within Continental.
“Vehicle access and start technology” is evolving rapidly, she said.
Convenience over privacy
While some people may be concerned about privacy, surveys indicate most consumers want convenience.
“There’s a personality that doesn’t want to give Big Brother everything; there’s a discomfort about automobile companies having so much information about us,” said Holly L. Hubert, a retired FBI cybersecurity expert and founder of GlobalSecurityIQ. “This will take some getting used to. But it’s pretty exciting, thinking about how technologies can be leveraged. If you’re a parent of a teenage driver, these are great things.”
Auto companies are working cautiously – but rapidly – to adapt to a new security landscape without compromising convenience.
“There are ways we can protect the critical function of the vehicle,” said Faye Francy, executive director of the nonprofit Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center. “What we need to do is thwart the threat. Automakers are invested in getting the security literally built into the design.”
Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Phoebe Wall Howard on Twitter @phoebesaid.