Security And Convenience: Where’s The Balance?

Subaru key

Benjamin Franklin once said, “He who would trade convenience for some temporary security, deserves neither convenience nor security.” That’s not actually true, but when it comes to cars there are some trade-offs when it comes to convenience and security. A recent experience of mine has made question at what point security is too much of an infringement on convenience.

Mazda Miata
Photo credit:

On the extreme of convenience, we have the convertible. Open air motoring is fun. It’s super easy to fit inside a convertible, and to reach inside to grab your stuff. This convenience comes at the expense of security, specifically that anybody other than you can also reach in and grab your stuff. Putting the top up and locking the doors doesn’t eliminate this inconvenience either, since all it takes is a knife to breach this layer. In fact many Miata owners intentionally leave their doors unlocked at all times, hoping that any would-be thief will check the doors and let themselves in before damaging the convertible top worth several hundred dollars.

Photo credit: Mr.choppers / Wikipedia
Photo credit: Mr.choppers / Wikipedia

My BMW 320i was the victim of a theft attempt before I bought it. The ignition switch on the steering column was broken. The seller had plugged a second factory switch into the wiring harness (just the switch, no key), but didn’t repair it properly. To prevent theft, BMW broke off the steering column bolts at the factory, meaning they had to be drilled out to drop the column and replace the switch. This tactic worked perfectly to prevent the theft, but the subsequent repair was quite labor intensive – more than I could tackle myself, and more expensive than I could afford to pay someone to do it properly. So rather than have a switch dangle on the floor, I bought an $8 generic ignition switch and installed it into a hole already drilled into dashboard panel where an alarm system key lived. (Obviously the alarm didn’t work either.) I wired the ignition up to that, and everything worked off of that switch rather than the original one. The only issue was that if I forgot to tell a shop about this when I dropped it off, they wouldn’t be able to start the car.

This level of inconvenience was well worth it for the security that prevented the car from being stolen before I could buy it. I’m not sure if the correct repair might have been covered under the previous owner’s insurance, or if the 320i was unregistered/uninsured at the time of the attempted theft. But being somewhat mechanically inclined, I was able to arrange a workaround to the inconvenient repair that worked and added only a little bit to the car’s uniqueness.

Of course, modern cars can’t be stolen by hotwiring them because of microchips in the keys, without which the car will refuse to start. The convenience of going to the hardware store to pay $5 for a copy of your car key is gone, as modern chip keys are far more expensive, but also far more secure. Also, a key isn’t just a key anymore – it’s a remote control. Door locks, trunks and hatchbacks, and windows can be opened and shut by pushing buttons on your key. And let’s not forget the PANIC button, which flashes your lights, honks your horn, and annoys your entire neighborhood when you bend over to pick something up and another key in your pocket presses the button by accident. (Sorry, neighborhood. I’ve since used Carista to disable this function on my car, so please call off the lynch mob.)

BRZ at Thompson Speedway
Photo credit: Allison Feldhusen

Sometimes, a key gets lost. My wife’s key to my BRZ disappeared during our move in December, and we only just got around to replacing it. At $239.95 for a replacement key plus a $50 programming charge, we wanted to avoid this until we gave up completely on finding her old key. Three months later, we bit the bullet, and I ordered one from North End Subaru at the same time I got my 30k mile service. I’d hoped to just go in and pick it up after it came in, but it wasn’t that easy. Not nearly. Not only did they need a good chunk of time to bring the car into the shop to electronically match the key to the car, I needed to bring in ALL of my keys for recoding. Obviously I still had my own key, but I hadn’t seen my valet key since it got packed for the move. If I couldn’t find it, it would no longer work, and we’d still be down to two keys.

Fortunately, in a last ditch effort of digging through yet to be unpacked boxes, I found a baggie with stuff from my old “junk drawer,” and the valet key was inside, attached ironically to a Scion keyring. I went to my appointment with both remaining keys, handed them over, and waited. And waited. And waited some more. It took nearly two hours for them to do the job. If I’d known it would take that long I would’ve dropped the car off the night before and picked it up when it was ready. In fairness, the job wasn’t supposed to take nearly that long. They told me they had problems with the laptop that handles their key coding that caused the delay. They also didn’t charge me the $50 programming fee, and washed and vacuumed my car. Apology accepted.

Still, I think this experience crossed the line of where convenience becomes more important than added security. On every other car I’ve seen, a chip key could be programmed to work with a car either based on the VIN or by cloning the code off an existing key. That’s how my wife replaced a lost key for her old Jeep Liberty. And she was able to save a bit of money by buying the key from a dealer, then taking it to a locksmith to program, who charged far less for the service. I doubt that Joe the Locksmith down the street has a laptop with Subaru’s (and every other manufacturer’s) special key programming software. Gathering up all of the keys to add a new one can be a major chore, too. I almost didn’t find the valet key in time. If you have a kid far away at college who has a key to your car, getting the key back would be a real pain. I understand the security advantage of disabling any formerly functional keys. This way a lost key can be disabled to no longer work with your car if someone finds it and tries to take it. This would be an effective way to deny the kid at college access to your car after failing Chemistry without having to take the key back. But is it worth the hassle involved? Even taking the two hour wait I had out of the equation, I still say no, it isn’t.

Dodge Challenger
Photo credit: Challenger Talk

So what about keyless entry and ignition? It’s super convenient. No more hassle with keys – as long as you have it somewhere on you, you can let yourself into the car, push a button to start the engine, and drive away as though there’s no security involved at all. The best security is both secure and invisible, and this is it. Not only does it not add any inconvenience, it actually make things even more convenient. I enjoyed this feature more than I thought I would on the Ford Mustang I had for a week last fall. And it’s not exclusive to high end cars, either. Had I opted for the BRZ Limited, my car would’ve had it, too.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, many things, actually. Jeremy Clarkson demonstrates one of them in Richard Hammond’s Dodge Challenger, starting at 3:15.


[brid video=”32104″ player=”4063″ title=”USA Muscle Car Road Trip Part 2 Mountain pass Top Gear BBC”]

Since Hammond was sitting inside the restaurant close to where he parked the car, his proximity key was proximate enough for Clarkson to relocate his car to an annoying location – in the middle of the road. I would’ve been interested to see how far he could’ve gotten before the car shut itself down, though. I may have to test that with my next press car. That’s not the only issue with this system, either. What if you lock your car, leave your interior light on overnight, and kill the battery? Without at least one manual door lock, you can’t open the car, pop the hood, and attach a booster pack or jumper cables. There’s usually a manual lock around somewhere, but it isn’t always obvious. On the C6 Corvette, for instance, you need to manually open the trunk, then pull a handle to yank on a cable to release the door. Lexus hides a manual door lock under a chrome cover. But none of this is obvious or intuitive. You’d have to read the owner’s manual to learn how to get in. And the manual is probably locked inside the car you can’t get into.

But at least no one can copy the keyless key, right? Well, not exactly. For every electronic measure, there are electronic countermeasures. A frequency counter can scan and detect what radio frequency your key operates on. Once tuned in, other scanners can decode your codes. Then it’s just a matter of duplicating and transmitting the same codes as your key, and your car is gone in 60 milliseconds. Hmm, that would make a good movie – one part Hackers, one part Gone in 60 Seconds.

Gone In 60 Seconds - Eleanor jump

The movies are pretty much the only place where such measures are actually feasible, though. Nobody’s going to invest thousands of dollars and hours of time into acquiring and setting up such equipment just to steal your BRZ. It would be cheaper and easier to just buy a BRZ, and do away with that whole going to jail part, too. It would be easier to tow the car to a secret shop and either strip it for parts or replace the ECU with one you can program to your own specs. It would be easier to mug you and steal your keys.

No security system is ever completely secure. Until recently, the more sophisticated security measures have gotten, the more inconvenient they’ve become. My recent situation with my BRZ keys is probably, and hopefully, the pinnacle of inconvenience for the sake of security. The latest and greatest proximity keys are reversing this trend, though. As the technology continues to trickle down to less expensive models, we can have both convenience and security. Ben Franklin would be rolling in his grave if he’d actually said those words.

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