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2013-08-01 13:06

VEHICLE OWNERS AT RISK: Researchers at the University of Birmingham hope to publish an academic paper showing that anti-theft systems in millions of Volkswagens could be hacked. Image: VWSA

A British university is delaying the release of an academic paper it claims will show that anti-theft systems of millions of VW and associated products are at risk of being hacked. Why? The German automaker took legal action to do so.

University of Birmingham researchers were able to subvert the VW's systems. The paper revealed three ways to bypass a specific brand of computer chip used by several automkers to prevent vehicle theft.

Often referred to as immobilisers, chips use a secret algorithm to ensure that a car can only be started with the right key, and they've been mandatory in all new vehicles sold in Britain for the previous 15 years.

PUBLIC SAFETY AT RISK

Crucially, the researchers planned to reveal how they were able to reverse-engineer the algorithm and publish a copy of it in their paper.

The institute said said it would "defer publication" of the paper after an interim injunction was issued by an English High Court. It said it was "disappointed by the judgment which did not uphold the defence of academic freedom and public interest, but respects the decision".

The university did not elaborate on how long the paper would be held, stating it would seek legal advice.

‘HIGHLY DAMAGING’

VW said publishing the formula would be "highly damaging" and "facilitate car theft", according to a ruling handed down last month by High Court Justice Colin Birss who said millions of VW's were issued with the chip, as were Porsche, Audi, Bentley and Lamborghini.

Birss said he sympathised with the researchers but that he had to consider public safety: "I recognise the high value of academic free speech but there is another high value, the security of millions of VW cars.”

The researchers countered that VW's's claim that the paper would aid car thieves was overblown. The researchers claimed they had warned the chip's manufacturer about the vulnerability earlier in 2013 and that a gag order would interfere with their academic work.

It's not yet clear if the case will go to trial.

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