Canada declares Flipper Zero public enemy No. 1 in crackdown on car theft

A Flipper Zero device
Enlarge / A Flipper Zero device

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has identified an unlikely public enemy No. 1 in his new crackdown on car theft: the Flipper Zero, a $200 piece of open source hardware used to capture, analyze and interact with simple radio communications.

On Thursday, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada agency said it will “pursue all avenues to ban devices used to steal vehicles by copying the wireless signals for remote keyless entry, such as the Flipper Zero, which would allow for the removal of those devices from the Canadian marketplace through collaboration with law enforcement agencies.” A social media post by François-Philippe Champagne, the minister of that agency, said that as part of the push “we are banning the importation, sale and use of consumer hacking devices, like flippers, used to commit these crimes.”

In remarks made the same day, Trudeau said the push will target similar tools that he said can be used to defeat anti-theft protections built into virtually all new cars.

“In reality, it has become too easy for criminals to obtain sophisticated electronic devices that make their jobs easier,” he said. “For example, to copy car keys. It is unacceptable that it is possible to buy tools that help car theft on major online shopping platforms.”

Presumably, such tools subject to the ban would include HackRF One and LimeSDR, which have become crucial for analyzing and testing the security of all kinds of electronic devices to find vulnerabilities before they’re exploited. None of the government officials identified any of these tools, but in an email, a representative of the Canadian government reiterated the use of the phrase “pursuing all avenues to ban devices used to steal vehicles by copying the wireless signals for remote keyless entry.”

A humble hobbyist device

The push to ban any of these tools has been met with fierce criticism from hobbyists and security professionals. Their case has only been strengthened by Trudeau’s focus on Flipper Zero. This slim, lightweight device bearing the logo of an adorable dolphin acts as a Swiss Army knife for sending, receiving, and analyzing all kinds of wireless communications. It can interact with radio signals, including RFID, NFC, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or standard radio. People can use them to change the channels of a TV at a bar covertly, clone simple hotel key cards, read the RFID chip implanted in pets, open and close some garage doors, and, until Apple issued a patch, send iPhones into a never-ending DoS loop.

The price and ease of use make Flipper Zero ideal for beginners and hobbyists who want to understand how increasingly ubiquitous communications protocols such as NFC and Wi-Fi work. It bundles various open source hardware and software into a portable form factor that sells for an affordable price. Lost on the Canadian government, the device isn’t especially useful in stealing cars because it lacks the more advanced capabilities required to bypass anti-theft protections introduced in more than two decades.

One thing the Flipper Zero is exceedingly ill-equipped for is defeating modern antihack protections built into cars, smartcards, phones, and other electronic devices.

The most prevalent form of electronics-assisted car theft these days, for instance, uses what are known as signal amplification relay devices against keyless ignition and entry systems. This form of hack works by holding one device near a key fob and a second device near the vehicle the fob works with. In the most typical scenario, the fob is located on a shelf near a locked front door, and the car is several dozen feet away in a driveway. By placing one device near the front door and another one next to the car, the hack beams the radio signals necessary to unlock and start the device.

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