Sunday, August 06, 2006

Computer car theft

You may have heard about this. Several stories appeared earlier this summer about thieves using laptops to steal cars equipped with keyless entry and ignition systems.

According to some of these stories, David Beckham, the British soccer star, has had two BMW X5’s stolen from him this year. In each case, the thieves used the laptop technique to take the cars. The second theft apparently occurred while Beckham and his sons were eating at a restaurant in Madrid.

This is a good example of how beneficial technology can be compromised for criminal purposes. As one reporter explained, “decrypting one 40-bit code sequence can not only disengage the security system and unlock the doors, it can also start the car. . . . The owner of the code is now the true owner of the car.” I’ve read that thieves can also disable tracking systems – GPS systems – that are intended to make it easier to find stolen vehicles.

As far as I know, this is only happening in Europe, where it is becoming more common. It probably won’t take long, though, for it to migrate here to the U.S.

The process of compromising the vehicle’s entry and ignition systems apparently takes about 20 minutes, and I gather the thieves need to have the vehicle parked in a relatively out of the way place . . . since people might be suspicious if they walked by and saw a laptop hooked up to a parked car.

Does this kind of theft raise any new legal issues?
I really don’t think it does, at least not in terms of the theft of the vehicle. All the thieves are doing, after all, is stealing a car, and car theft has been criminalized in this country and abroad for many, many years.

I think our existing car theft statutes would easily encompass this kind of activity. Take Alaska’s car theft state, for example. Alaska Statutes section 11.46.360(a) It makes it a crime (a felony) if “having no right to do so . . . [a] person drives, tows away, or takes the car, truck, motorcycle, motor home, bus, aircraft, or watercraft of another”. Most car theft statutes will be structured similarly.

The essence of the crime lies in taking a vehicle that belongs to someone else; the method one uses to accomplish that is irrelevant. So it really doesn’t matter whether the thief uses a Slim Jim or a laptop.

It seems to me, though, that a prosecutor could also add a “hacking” charge.

As I explained in an earlier post, in terms of criminal law “hacking” consists of gaining access to computer system without being authorized to do so. As I also noted in response to a comment on that post, we have aggravated hacking (or cracking) statutes that make it a more serious crime to hack a system and cause “damage” by, say, copying or destroying data.
It looks to me like the laptop car thief “hacks” the car’s computer system.

As I explained in that earlier post, our law doesn’t do a particularly good job of defining “access” in the context of “hacking,” but I think a prosecutor could make a good argument that a laptop car thief does gain “access” to the car’s computer system. As I noted earlier, one of the phrases used to define “access” is “communicate with,” as in “communicating with” a computer system. Another phrase used for this purpose is “make use of,” again as in “making use of” a computer system.

If you buy that analysis, then it seems laptop car thieves can be charged both with car theft and with hacking the car’s computer system. Now, they might argue that hacking the car’s computer system was merely part of the process of stealing the vehicle, so they should not be charged with both crimes. I suspect that argument would not work.

One of the defining traits of modern American criminal law (anyway) is that prosecutors tend to carve a course of conduct up into multiple offenses, a technique courts generally support. The premise – in this instance – would be that the thief really did commit two distinct and severable crimes: (i) hacked the car’s computer system; and (ii) stole the car. A prosecutor who wanted to charge such a thief with both crimes could point out that he could have stopped with (i) but, instead, chose to proceed with the “second” crime, the theft.

Legal issues aside, this is another example of how technology we adopt to make our lives easier can have unforeseen, unfortunate consequences.

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