Digital car thefts push manufacturers to tighten security

Published: 9 May 2018

Security assessments for all new cars are being tightened to bring in fresh measures to address the challenges presented by digital theft techniques, Thatcham Research has announced.

The motor insurers’ automotive research centre is updating the New Vehicle Security Assessment (NVSA) programme, centred on securing cars against the growing threat presented by digital compromise.

The NVSA is the security standard against which all new cars are assessed as part of the insurance Group Rating and will be updated in 2019 giving carmakers the opportunity to bring in fresh measures.

The new criteria will be designed to shut down the keyless entry vulnerability, while anticipating other potential methods of digital and cyber-compromise.

Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer, Thatcham Research, said: “Car crime is on the increase, with intelligence suggesting that electronic compromise is a factor in as many as one in four vehicle thefts.

“In the 1990s, the NVSA effectively brought an end to a car crime epidemic by introducing alarms and double-locking door functions, amongst other measures. Initiated in 1992, a year which saw 620,000 car thefts, this approach was instrumental in driving theft levels down by 80% up to 2016.

“In the same way, collaborative and concerted action from Thatcham Research, carmakers, police and insurers will close the digital vulnerabilities exploited by today’s criminal gangs.”

Thatcham Research has identified vulnerabilities in on-board electronic systems and criteria covering those areas will be included in the new standards.

In addition, police authorities have drawn attention to the increase in ‘chop shops’ – illicit garages where cars are dismantled to be sold on the spare parts market – and therefore criteria related to parts identification will also be carefully reviewed.

Mr Billyeald continued: “CCTV footage of criminal gangs exploiting a vulnerability in keyless entry systems has been highly visible in recent months. However, we estimate that only 1% of cars on the road have this technology. Carmakers are already introducing keys with motion sensors which deactivate when stored, and new secure signal transmission technologies. In the short term, while these counter-measures come into the market, concerned drivers should contact their dealer to discuss the digital functionality of their cars.

“The online availability of tools which criminals can plug into vehicles to programme a false key is also a concern. We support recent calls from the police for closer regulation of the sale of these devices, which have no use outside of a licensed bodyshop or garage.”