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NXP to combine NFC, Bluetooth to improve car security

Posted: 19 May 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:NXP Semiconductors  NFC  Bluetooth  wireless technology  RFID 

Bluetooth and near field communication (NFC) have been staple technologies of mobile consumer devices. While Bluetooth has somehow managed to cross into the automotive space, NXP Semiconductors has suggested the combined capabilities of Bluetooth and NFC to bring car security to a different level.

When you know that all a burglar needs to get inside your car is a brick heavy enough to smash the window, why debate which wireless technology is better suited for a keyless car entry system? Sure, the comfort of locking and unlocking a car from a distance by push button is cool. But cooler, at least for car OEMs and insurance companies, is electronics in car keys integrated with a vehicle immobiliser.

Unlike a mechanical key, this kind of electronic key uses a wireless passive RFID interface to identify its car. The engine remains cold and unresponsive until the car (the engine control unit) and the key (the transponder) authenticate each other.

NXP Semiconductors, which makes chips for automotive keyless entry systems with immobiliser functions, has established a strong presence in the market.

"It may be just $2 [worth of] silicon, but electronics in the car key offers enormous value to you, when it prevents someone from getting inside your BMW and driving it away," said Lars Reger, VP of strategy, new business, and R&D for the automotive business unit at NXP. "Secure access must not be compromised."

In that context, Reger called the concern over the security provided by Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE or, in more politically correct terms, Bluetooth Smart) in cars "justified."

Of course, BLE itself is just another wireless technology with a variety of uses. There's nothing wrong with it. Whether a driver gets to open a car with a smartphone (embedded with BLE) is probably a sideshow.

In Reger's view, what matters is whether BLE offers brick-solid "secure access," not just to get into the car, but also to connect to the telematics system. Connected cars are coming soon and are increasingly deemed a part of the Internet of Things. Once secure access to a connected car is compromised, the complete automotive platform "can principally get hacked."

Not surprisingly, NXP is pitching NFC as a key to securing in-car connectivity.

Reger said a crypto-controller inside the NFC chip, also deployed in banking cards, can secure an air interface of various wireless technologies, including car-to-car, car access or telematics access.

The NXP executive sees the biggest issue for the current version of BLE as "its security and pairing mechanism."

Mike Ryan, security engineer at iSEC Partners, agrees with that. He has been publicly discussing BLE's "key exchange" as the weak link of BLE's security for a while.

In a recent email exchange with EE Times, Ryan sketched out the following scenario: Given that the key exchange is compromised, an attacker can effectively impersonate either the BLE master (car) or slave (keyfob/phone) *if* they rely on BLE's built-in security and *if* the attacker is able to observe the user pairing with the phone. Such an attacker would be able to perform any action exposed via BLE.

As we reported earlier, members of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) aren't blind to the issue.

In fact, Joel Linsky, senior director of technology at Qualcomm, who chairs the Bluetooth SIG Core Specification Working Group, said the Bluetooth SIG team is working on a mechanism to "natively support" NIST-compliant algorithms in some BLE radios, including hashing functions and Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellmann (ECDH) key exchange. However, the SIG group stopped short of promising a release date for the updated spec.

NXP's Reger said: "BLE and NFC are both transport interfaces. One difference is that the secure element in NFC can securely transport keys to another device."

His company is not suggesting NFC to replace BLE. Instead, Reger is proposing NFC for secure transactions, while BLE offers a data link.

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