How transparency in tech can help you keep your car from being stolen

Here’s how people are stealing cars today: They go outside your home and see your car parked in the driveway. Then they detect the wireless signal coming to your key fob. So long as the key is in your house and the signal can be picked up outside, thieves can start your car and drive it away with a piece of technology designed to intercept signals.

Hacker on computer

Scary, right? You feel like you can’t do anything reading that. You feel helpless.

I promise you there is a quick fix, and all you need to know is a little about enterprise networks to keep your car safe from burglars and from the bad guys intercepting your signal. And I’ll tell you by the end of this column.

That feeling of helplessness is natural and increasingly common in a high-tech society. I first read about the idea in a book by Laurence Gonzales called “Deep Survival: Who Lives and Dies and Why.” It might be my favorite book.

On the surface, maybe wilderness survival, enterprise networking, and “learned helplessness” don’t have much in common. But the psychological concept that is increasingly taught is that we have come to believe the world is too complex, we cannot understand it, and we certainly can’t change it as a result. We might try to understand it, we might try to change it … but after a few failures, we give up and accept our fate as a pawn in the great game of life.

In some sectors, this has been realized as an issue worth addressing. The “right to repair” is a movement for a reason – in some cases, machines have been deliberately built, so we can’t go in and fix them even if we want to.

Contrast this to just a generation ago: We used to understand everything we owned and be able to grab our toolbox and a kid to hold the flashlight and go fix it. I grew up on a farm. Trust me, anyone can figure out how a shovel works if their dad hollers at them loudly enough.

But once the computer age crept into our lives, that approach of understanding what we use began to disappear. My grandfather – very much a toolbox kind of guy – tried to take that “I can fix it” approach with his own computer once, when he was in his 80s. You can see where this is going. Whatever the problem was, my grandfather ended up deciding he needed to reinstall the Windows operating system (OS) on his computer. This was apparently not close to the right decision. In fact, it wound up being a terrible call as he eventually lost everything on it and had to take it in to get the machine back to functional at all.

And do you think he ever touched a computer to try and fix one again? He did not.

That is an example of learned helplessness in action. I can’t do it, I couldn’t possibly understand it, it can’t be understood – and in my grandfather’s case, a pretty capable guy just gave up.

Learned helplessness due to lack of transparency and understanding is also an issue with cloud-based applications that we use daily. No one seems to know what to do with entities like Facebook, for example, because people don’t really know what Facebook is doing. No one knows how to regulate the content because lawmakers don’t always understand how technology functions. A conservative estimate here is that the law is five years behind technology. Privacy is cited as a main issue as soon as you dig into the subject.

“Regulate us” asks Facebook in the LA Times, which notes this only happened after the company spent years lobbying for years not being regulated. Now there is a need, the company agrees. “If we don’t create standards that people feel are legitimate, they won’t trust institutions or technology,” said Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, as reported by the Times.

That’s very true. Social media giants like Facebook – and the cloud infrastructure they run on -- are entrenched in how we live today. Our world depends on data privacy and the security of all the enterprise networking technologies that we take for granted.

Tech companies of all kinds should be candid in what they are doing. I’m not talking about giving away trade secrets; I’m talking about explaining how their technology works. If they don’t, whistleblowers will do it for them.

But tech companies of any kind shouldn’t want people to feel helpless when using tech. They should feel empowered, enriched, and emboldened about what can be done. This is crucial as tech plays an increasingly prominent role in all our lives.

Networks and the companies that function on them need to be transparent on how they work, and digital companies need to take the time to explain how they work and what they are doing. It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up (even if it’s dubious if that even makes sense). From statistician and journalist Nate Silver, on Twitter: “Journalists are especially prone to this, because the underlying facts of the "crime" are often complicated or unclear, whereas the cover-up/apology is more self-contained. e.g., It's easier to evaluate Facebook's "PR strategy" than Facebook's effect on democratic institutions.”

This is true, but this is where the work is.

We don’t want people to feel helpless in the face of technology. That only happens if people understand how technology works and what it is doing.

If you understand how an enterprise Wi-Fi network works, you know that radio frequency (RF) signals travel through walls and outside of buildings. The whole purpose of providing wireless network access is to provide mobility. Wi-Fi is an unbounded medium, meaning it is “everywhere” and available to anyone. That is why enterprise companies use strong authentication and encryption to restrict access and ensure data privacy. In some extreme examples, a company might even implement a solution that mimics something called a Faraday cage to contain an RF signal.

Where am I going with this? Well, I promised I’d tell you how to save your car from being stolen off your driveway. If you know a little bit about how wireless networks work (as I described above), it’s simple: Keep your keys in your microwave oven. The shielded casing of the microwave oven should be strong enough that criminals can’t get your signal from your key fob.

Don’t have a microwave? You can also buy “signal scramblers” for your keychain.

And in the future, tech wizards are going to figure out another way to start your car altogether, such as using biometrics so your signal can’t be stolen (by the way, using your fingerprints or a retina scan is a topic on an upcoming 2022 episode of our company podcast Inflection Points).

Tech shouldn’t make us feel helpless, misguided, or misled, simple as that. Helplessness? No. Helped. Empowered, enabled, bettered, protected. That’s the proper role for tech.

About the Author
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Cammy Perry
Senior Content Marketing Specialist

Cammy is a Content Marketing Specialist at Extreme Networks, leveraging her expertise to craft thought leadership and engaging content.

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