Reporter Tosses Cold Water on Hot Technology

Wired takes a look at supposedly infallible transponder antitheft devices, and cuts through the media's usual uncritical hype about new technology.

The media’s habit of slathering uncritical hype on whatever gizmo or widget is currently deemed worthy of “breakthrough technology” status never ceases to annoy. By the time these breakthroughs are proven to be thoroughly useless, the writers have inevitably moved on to the next great thing.

Thus, we read with pleasure an article in this month’s Wired, wherein Brad Stone, Newsweek’s Silicon Valley correspondent, revisited with a critical eye the transponder antitheft systems which became staples of high-end cars beginning in the ’90s. The technology consists of a computer chip embedded in a vehicle’s ignition key that communicates with the car’s electrical system, and without which the car won’t start (at least in theory).

When these systems debuted, the technology press, urged on by the auto industry, hailed them as an essentially unbeatable deterrent to auto theft.

In 1994, the Financial Times, for example, quoted a Ford executive hyping the transponder technology: “Without the right key it’s not possible to start the engine.”

At roughly the same time, Texas Instruments put out the first in a series of releases on PR Newswire touting their version of the transponder system (known as TIRIS). “In other words, the car will not start without the right key,” noted Texas Instruments. “TIRIS technology adds a greater level of theft protection to vehicles than current anti-theft methods. For example, the system is much easier to use than PIN-based systems that require drivers to remember and punch in a code. Unlike infrared systems, the technology cannot be overridden.”

Years later, we remained a nation convinced that as long as thieves didn’t get their hands on our keys, they weren’t going to get their hands on our transponder-protected rides. All of which left Mr. Stone of Wired somewhat puzzled when, a few years ago, his white 2003 Honda Civic, nicknamed “Honky” and outfitted with the transponder technology, disappeared from the street near his home in San Francisco.

Stone and his wife double-checked. Sure enough, they still had all three of their keys. So how had the car been stolen? The police suggested that perhaps the thieves had hauled off Honky in the back of a flatbed truck.

“But Honky materialized two weeks later on a side street near the ocean,” writes Stone. “It was out of gas and littered with cigarette butts and pirated Pantera CDs, but otherwise undamaged. The ignition cylinder was intact, and our keys still worked. The car was a living, gas-sipping rebuke of modern antitheft technology.”

At the time, Stone wrote a piece about Honky’s mysterious disappearance for Newsweek. Afterward, readers began contacting him about similar experiences. Stone investigated. Over the next couple of years, he found that cars with transponder systems were regularly being stolen off the street, and (to add insult to injury) insurance companies often cited the transponder technology’s supposed infallibility in order to deny claims on such vehicles and to cast suspicion on their erstwhile owners.

“The inspector treated me like I was a liar and a criminal,” one such car theft victim tells Stone. “It all kept going back to the transponder system and their belief that ‘You can’t steal it! You can’t steal it!’”

So Stone sets out to answer the pertinent question: “[H]ow do you steal the unstealable car?”

What he ends up discovering is that there are actually a number of ways for car thieves to outmaneuver transponder systems. The article even comes with a handy sidebar, entitled “4 Ways to Steal Wheels,” ranging from tampering with “vehicle anatomy” to figuring out a car’s “cheat code,” which overrides the transponder. In a classic kicker to the article, Stone disproves the insurance folk’s belief in the infallibility of transponder technology — by proceeding to steal his own car.

Along the way, he interviews everyone from “a forensic locksmith” to a “senior special agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau” to a guy who is “famous in Bay Area street racing circles” for his souped-up 1992 Honda Civic named “Spanky.”

Aside from being a good piece of investigative journalism, Stone’s “Pinch My Ride” is rare and welcome evidence that a tech story can be a fun read full of interesting, eccentric characters — people other than the flacks who are pushing the technology.

Correction: The above article has been changed to note that Brad Stone is the Silicon Valley correspondent for Newsweek.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.