Last week, New York Times tech/style columnist Nick Bilton told the tale of two teens breaking into his Toyota Prius with a mysterious black box . Now we might know what it is, and you can get one for as little as $17.
Bilton’s neighborhood had been enduring a streak of break-ins over the past few months, but there were no signs of forced entry. Last Monday, Bilton watched the process first-hand as he was working at his kitchen table and watched two kids walk up to his 2013 Prius, press a button on a “small black device” and opened the door to his car.
As soon as I realized what had happened, I ran outside and they quickly jumped on their bikes and took off. I rushed after them, partly with the hope of catching the attempted thieves, but more because I was fascinated by their little black device. How were they able to unlock my car door so easily?
After some digging and a chat with Boris Danev, a founder of Switzerland-based security company 3db Technologies, the answer came in the form of something called a “power amplifier”.
There are two kinds of keyless entry systems: The ones where you have to press a button on the key fob to unlock the door and the proximity-based systems that broadcasts a low frequency signal to recognize when the key is in your pocket, and then unlocks the doors when you’re close by or touch the door handle.
Bilton’s Prius had the latter, and that’s where the power amplifier comes into play:
Mr. Danev said that when the teenage girl turned on her device, it amplified the distance that the car can search, which then allowed my car to talk to my key, which happened to be sitting about 50 feet away, on the kitchen counter. And just like that, open sesame.
“It’s a bit like a loudspeaker, so when you say hello over it, people who are 100 meters away can hear the word, ‘hello,’ “ Mr. Danev said. “You can buy these devices anywhere for under $100.” He said some of the lower-range devices cost as little as $17 and can be bought online on sites like eBay, Amazon and Craigslist.
The solution, according to Danev, is to keep your keys in something that won’t allow the amplifier to boost the signal and detect the key – something like a Faraday Cage – which is why Bilton’s keys are now chilling out in his freezer.