A step ahead of the car thieves

KEEP­ING TRACK AS CAR THEFT EVOLVES We find out how the se­cu­rity ex­perts at Thatcham have stayed a step ahead as car thieves move from brute force to hi-tech hack­ing

Auto Express - - Contents - Joe Fin­nerty Joe_finnerty@den­nis.co.uk @Ae_­con­sumer

We meet se­cu­rity ex­perts keep­ing watch as ve­hi­cle crime evolves

“No longer do crooks force en­try to a car with heavy-duty tools; these days, they use a lap­top, soft­ware and com­puter wiz­ardry”

A SCREW­DRIVER, ham­mer and brute force – that was all you needed to smash your way into a car and drive off with it 25 years ago. It was so quick and easy that thieves em­barked on a car crime wave that saw 620,000 ve­hi­cle thefts and one mil­lion thefts from in­side cars and vans on UK roads in 1992 alone.

But ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers and in­sur­ers vowed that enough was enough, and fought back, cre­at­ing new ve­hi­cle se­cu­rity stan­dards to stop thieves in their tracks. The con­tin­u­ally evolv­ing sys­tem to tackle crim­i­nal tac­tics over the past quar­ter of a cen­tury has helped bring car crime down by 80 per cent. In 2015, there were just 75,000 ve­hi­cle thefts and 200,000 thefts from mo­tors.

The fight isn’t over yet, though, be­cause new threats are con­stantly emerg­ing. The CV of the mod­ern car thief has changed and their ar­moury has been up­graded. No longer do they force en­try with heavy-duty tools; in­stead, they use a lap­top, soft­ware and com­puter wiz­ardry.

The in­dus­try is fac­ing these chal­lenges head on, and at the fore­front of this is Thatcham Re­search. Based in Berk­shire, it’s a global leader in this field, hav­ing set up its se­cu­rity team in 1992 and de­vel­oped the New Ve­hi­cle Safety As­sess­ment (NVSA) struc­ture, rat­ing new cars in the UK mar­ket to help in­form in­sur­ance groups.


The idea was so rad­i­cal that Thatcham and its part­ners bat­tled some coun­tries in the EU, such as Ger­many, to in­clude this test in their rat­ings, but over time, NVSA was ac­cepted as vi­tal. Now the stan­dard drives global prod­uct de­vel­op­ment of se­cu­rity, and the UK’S pro­cesses have been rolled out as far afield as Asia and Aus­tralia.

These days, Thatcham’s en­gi­neers travel the world to an­a­lyse the lat­est meth­ods and tech­niques used by thieves, too. This in­for­ma­tion can then be fed back into the NVSA guide­lines to cre­ate new cri­te­ria, close weak spots in ve­hi­cles and try to stay ahead of crooks.

The NVSA stan­dards have con­tin­u­ally de­vel­oped over the past 20 years with more changes sched­uled for 2020 and be­yond, in a bid to halt the progress of car thieves – or more ac­cu­rately these days, car hack­ers.

Auto Ex­press caught up with se­cu­rity ex­pert Steve Launch­bury at Thatcham Re­search’s Crime Lab to find out how the tests have changed and why driv­ers should be re­as­sured that their pride and joy on the drive­way is as safe as it can be.

Launch­bury, Thatcham’s ve­hi­cle crime re­search pro­ject en­gi­neer, said: “I have been here for 20 years and seen the fall of crime, but also the shift as it’s be­come a lot more tech-based.” Back in the nineties, there was a fo­cus on screw­drivers and ham­mers to smash glass or force locks, lead­ing to the de­vel­op­ment of in­ter­nal shields, re­in­forced locks and the re­moval of link­ages to stop the “coat-hanger” trick.

Po­lice re­ports helped di­rect these early tests. One in­cluded de­tails that mag­nets had been found in the cab­ins of sev­eral stolen cars, which led to the in­tro­duc­tion of ‘dou­ble lock­ing’ to stop thieves break­ing the glass and open­ing the door from the in­side.

All this work started to pay div­i­dends, with the early 2000s show­ing a re­duc­tion in car thefts. Launch­bury said: “If you make it dif­fi­cult, they will move on to

some­thing else.” Un­for­tu­nately, those words rang true, and grad­u­ally, crim­i­nals be­came more tech­ni­cally minded with the me­chan­i­cal el­e­ments now se­cure. This forced man­u­fac­tur­ers to strengthen the en­gine con­trol unit (ECU) pro­tec­tion, in­tro­duce en­cryp­tion and start to mark cars.

Launch­bury said: “Theft was still higher than we would like, but by in­tro­duc­ing ID mark­ing [in 2006], it de­terred peo­ple from steal­ing ve­hi­cles to break them up for parts. Po­lice can track it back to a stolen ve­hi­cle so it makes it dif­fi­cult to cre­ate a ringer, and re­duces the mar­ket.

“There’s a lot go­ing on be­hind the scenes. Some­times a crim­i­nal might get lucky, but more of­ten than not, we’ve done ev­ery­thing we can in that area.” These huge strides made in ve­hi­cle se­cu­rity have meant the type of car theft

“We work with car mak­ers to find a bal­ance be­tween tech and safety. But tech is start­ing to run away with it­self” STEVE LAUNCH­BURY Ve­hi­cle crime re­search pro­ject en­gi­neer, Thatcham Re­search

“Lone op­por­tunists of old have made way for or­gan­ised gangs steal­ing high­value tar­gets via com­puter soft­ware”

has changed, with op­por­tunist lone op­er­a­tors re­placed by or­gan­ised gangs steal­ing high-value tar­gets via com­puter soft­ware, of­ten to be shipped abroad to or­der.

Tech­nol­ogy like key­less en­try of­fers crim­i­nals pre­pared to do their home­work an easy way in. The NVSA had to in­tro­duce a pa­ram­e­ter of two me­tres for key­less sys­tems to meet in­sur­ance stan­dards, and pre­vent long-range jam­mers – avail­able for le­git­i­mate use on the mar­ket – from block­ing sig­nals on the same fre­quency. Car keys, for ex­am­ple, op­er­ate on the same fre­quency as garage doors.

“As much as we work with man­u­fac­tur­ers to find the bal­ance be­tween tech and safety, there will al­ways be a de­gree of car theft, even if it’s small,” said Launch­bury. “If any­thing, it’s get­ting eas­ier. There’s a fine bal­ance as tech is start­ing to run away with it­self.” The big­gest prob­lem fac­ing the in­dus­try cur­rently is on-board di­ag­nos­tic port (OBD) ac­cess, which has ex­ploded in re­cent years. This en­try point, nor­mally found un­der the dash, is used by deal­ers to plug in di­ag­nos­tic tools to de­ter­mine fault codes.

How­ever, be­cause of EU fair-trad­ing rules that dic­tate any garage – not just fran­chised sites – must be able to ac­cess the OBD, crim­i­nals can do the same. While the full kit used by deal­ers costs £5,000, some gad­gets are avail­able for as lit­tle as £10. Both can be bought on­line by any­one.

Launch­bury said: “We need to reg­u­late buy­ing of the OBD di­ag­nos­tic tool. Any­body can buy it for your car; I gave ev­i­dence in a case re­cently and a judge could not be­lieve it.” The prob­lem first arose in 2013 and OBD pro­tec­tion – which in­cludes phys­i­cal “lock­boxes” for the port – now falls un­der NVSA stan­dards, but be­cause the cri­te­ria had to be set up and prod­uct cy­cles of cars last for two to three years, the ben­e­fits are only now be­ing seen.

And that time lag means Thatcham’s ex­perts al­ready need to be look­ing ahead, de­vel­op­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of test­ing to avoid giv­ing crim­i­nals free pas­sage.

Chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer An­drew Miller ex­plained: “We’re mov­ing to the con­nected world with GPS, ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle and ve­hi­cle-to-in­fra­struc­ture. All that pro­vides op­por­tu­nity to get into ve­hi­cle sys­tems, so it’s an emerg­ing threat.”

Smart en­try will be added to the NVSA along with new cy­ber se­cu­rity as­sess­ments in 2020, while be­yond that, Thatcham is work­ing with Gov­ern­ment and other cy­ber spe­cial­ists to build a frame­work for man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“It’s a story and it’s had an im­pact,” said Miller. “Man­u­fac­tur­ers are re­spond­ing to fit­ment of tech and re­duc­ing theft as a prob­lem, and al­ready we’re start­ing to talk to car mak­ers about the fu­ture.”

CRIM­I­NAL REV­O­LU­TION Mod­ern thieves are now more likely to work with a lap­top than a ham­mer; car se­cu­rity needs to be able to stand up to this new threat

KIT­TED OUT Thatcham’s Launch­bury (above, right) talks us through mod­ern thief’s tool­kit, and why the OBD port needs pro­tect­ing

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