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Firmware update utilities for TU2 loader rwprogupdate. USB driver for FT232 based USB-COM cable CDM20802_WHQL_Certified. Researchers have revealed a massive flaw in the remote controls used by hundreds of cars – and say Volkswagen and other manufacturers went to court two years ago to keep their discovery a secret. Three European computer scientists say they have known about the flaws since 2012, and warned automakers. The list of impacted cars includes luxury vehicles from Volkswagen’s Porsche, Audi, Bentley, and Lamborghini brands.

Volkswagen’s Porsche, Audi, Bentley, and Lamborghini brands. Volkswagen used its lawyers to keep the research under wraps but now a legal settlement has allowed the documents to go public. The researchers say the flaw lies in the widely-used Megamos Crypto transponder, which is responsible for the encryption between the car and remote. It’s used in keys and car fobs and is designed to stop an engine from starting if it is not in close proximity to the vehicle.

The transponder includes a 96-bit secret key, proprietary cipher, and 32-bit PIN code, but the researchers realised that its internal security was weaker. The hack attacks a component known as the Megamos Crypto transponder – a tiny device in the car that checks whether the owner’s key fob is nearby before allowing the engine to start. The transponder ‘talks’ to the keyfob wirelessly to check its identity – and if it can’t find the correct fob, it immobilises the engine. In theory that identity has a 96-bit key, meaning there are countless billions of possible combinations and making it all but impossible to happen upon the right one by chance. But the hackers discovered that by listening in to the wireless communication between the car and the transponder just twice, they could narrow the number of possible combinations to just 200,000. That may still sound like a lot, but it’s few enough for an automated ‘cracking’ programme to try every one, allowing it to find the right combination in just half an hour.

And once you’ve found the right combination, it’s child’s play for the hackers to make a fake key that will be recognised by the car as the real deal. The Megamos Crypto transponder is used in one of the most widely deployed electronic vehicle immobilisers,’ the researchers write. It is used among others in most Audi, Fiat, Honda, Volkswagen and Volvo cars. At some point the mechanical key was removed from the vehicle but the cryptographic mechanisms were not strengthened to compensate.