Shedding some light on the fob-that-can-open-any-door crime spree

The Today Show/NBC just published a story — Police admit they’re ‘stumped’ by mystery car thefts — detailing how “criminals have designed a new high-tech gadget giving them full access to your car. It’s so easy, it’s like the criminals have your actual door remote.” What? How? Read on:

A Long Beach, Calif., surveillance video shows a thief approaching a locked SUV in a driveway. Police say he’s carrying a small device in the palm of his hand. You can barely see it, but he aims it at the car and pops the locks electronically. He’s in, with access to everything. No commotion at all.

Then his accomplice shows up and hits another car, using that same handheld device.

Long Beach Deputy Police Chief David Hendricks is mystified. “This is bad in the sense we’re stumped,” he told us. “We are stumped and we don’t know what this technology is.”

Well, surely you must have some idea of what the technology is?

He said it’s almost like the thieves are cloning your car remote, which is virtually impossible to do. Here’s why: On most cars, when you hit the unlock button, it sends a code to the car. That code is encrypted and constantly changing — and should be hackproof.

Jim Stickley is one of the country’s leading security experts. He’s watched the tapes, and he’s stumped too.

“This is really frustrating because clearly they’ve figured out something that looks really simple and whatever it is they’re doing, it takes just seconds to do,” Stickley said. “And you look and you go, ‘That should not be possible.'”

Police are so baffled they want to see if you can help crack the case.

I take it back: if the police are asking me for help, they clearly have no idea what the technology is. Fortunately, I’m happy to point them back in the right direction.

Inspired by yesterday’s post about the library, here’s where I’d suggest they start: get the genre straight. The Today Show article starts off on the wrong foot, declaring in its opening sentence, “This is a real mystery.” The Hardy Boys and the Boxcar Children are certainly nice, but I think the cops might just be poking around the wrong section of Barnes & Noble: what if it’s not a question of technology at all? What if it’s — magic an illusion(, Michael):

Michael Shin’s home security camera caught a crook breaking into his Honda Accord using a similar device. But you’d never know it. On the video, the crook looks like the owner of the car, unlocking the doors remotely. The thief stole cash and an expensive cell phone.

“I felt pretty unsafe,” Shin said. “It was shocking. It just opens magically without him having to do anything.” [Editor’s note: bold added.]

But before you conclude that the cops should abandon the Maltese Falcon and head over to the Fantasy section of the bookstore instead — and before we set out on a road that will almost-invariably lead to witches burning at the stake — I would like to suggest that neither of these two options is particularly illuminating (pun intended — get it? burning). I have a different idea. You see, Shin’s comments call to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s third law:

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Perhaps it is magic… or just maybe, welcome to the brave new world of sufficiently advanced technology.

Arthur C. Clarke, for those who are not familiar with the name, first proposed the use of geostationary satellites as telecommunication relays, but — more importantly — was an acclaimed author of science fiction. So come with me, away from the fantasy stacks, all the way over to the science fiction… damnit, they’re still the same section. But OK, pretend for a moment that we’re on the other side of the library, and allow your imagination to momentarily run free…

As the wise and scholarly Dr. David Dinges once remarked, “If your car can park itself, it can — duh — drive itself.” I would add, if you car can drive itself, it can — duh — steal itself. That’s right: maybe the police are focusing too much on the people who show up in the security footage (and on the technology they allegedly hold in their hands) and not enough on the technology that’s literally growing smarter by the day — their automotive accomplices. (I’m confident the cars are not complicit in this scheme — Jedi mind tricks only work on organic brains — so yeah, guilty as charged… assuming they’re electric.)

Mystery solved.

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