Triggering Bombs by Remote Key Entry Devices

I regularly read articles about terrorists using cell phones to trigger bombs. The Thai government seems to be particularly worried about this; two years ago I blogged about a particularly bizarre movie-plot threat along these lines. And last year I blogged about the cell phone network being restricted after the Mumbai terrorist bombings.

Efforts to restrict cell phone usage because of this threat are ridiculous. It's a perfect example of a "movie-plot threat": by focusing on the specfics of a particular tactic rather than the broad threat, we simply force the bad guys to modify their tactics. Lots of money spent: no security gained.

And that's exactly what happened in Thailand:

Authorities said yesterday that police are looking for 40 Daihatsu keyless remote entry devices, some of which they believe were used to set off recent explosions in the deep South.

Militants who have in the past used mobile phones to set off bombs are being forced to change their detonation methods as security forces continue to block mobile phone signals while carrying out security missions, preventing them from carrying out their attacks.

[...]

Police found one of the Daihatsu keys near a blast site in Yala on April 13. It is thought the bomber dropped it while fleeing the scene. The key had been modified so its signal covered a longer distance, police said.

Posted on April 26, 2007 at 1:28 PM • 45 Comments

Comments

BrianApril 26, 2007 2:00 PM

I wonder whether there were some side-benefits of blocking mobile phones during security missions, besides preventing them from being used as detonation devices? Disrupting the enemy's communication network can be valuable.

comreichApril 26, 2007 2:07 PM

Sounds like Tom Clancey's "Rainbow Six". Disabling the cell towers in an area prevented an IRA cell from being able to speed-dial each other when they came under attack from the Rainbow team.

Geoff LaneApril 26, 2007 2:25 PM

IIRC, the "cell phone triggers" used in the Spanish train bombs were in fact cell phones used as stopwatch timers. They could have used alarm clocks.

The IRA was reported to be using model aircraft remote control systems and the army was then reported to be using jamming equipment, but in general the IRA preferred the reliability of simple mechanical timers (and manual triggers on the end of very long cables for roadside bombs.)

SpiderApril 26, 2007 2:48 PM

I understand the concept of the "movie-plot-threat", but what is the alternative? To do nothing?

I think you could draw an analogy to a biological system. Say AIDS. The first treatments blocked a specific method the virus used to enter the cell. And it worked.. for a period of time. HIV beign a retrovirus adapted to use a different method of infection. A new drug was devised that took care of that method of infection, and the virus adapted again. The current drug cocktail is the highly effective result of this. They administer drugs that prevent several different ways the virus uses to infect the cells. For many people, it works wonderfully.

I think the solution to this is to not focus on a single way of attacks, but all of them at once. Put yourself in the mind of the terrorist and try to figure out counter measures and workarounds to potential "solutions".

Mike SherwoodApril 26, 2007 2:49 PM

It's easy to cite the problem, but how can this cycle be fixed?

Here's the basic cycle:
1. Problem occurs.
2. People are outraged.
3. Solutions are proposed.
4. A viable solution to #1 is selected and implemented by the lowest bidder.

Politicians are motivated to act by #2. It's more important to appear decisive immediately than to have a successful solution when the project is rolled out months or years later. Future problems will start this cycle at the beginning again.

Companies will bid on the solution to make a profit. The people who will actually implement the solution are doing what they are told to get a paycheck. In most cases, this translates to a bunch of people doing as little as possible.

There isn't a lot of room in this process for someone who is genuinely interested in security to give some insight on the problem and proposed solutions. I think everyone knows better than to ask questions that will increase the cost.

There's a lot of money in providing useless, short term solutions.

Taco Del GatoApril 26, 2007 2:52 PM

@Spider

Well, to run with that analogy, lets say the AIDS treatments of temporary effectiveness, also left you paralyzed, blind or mute.

Still sound like a good approach?

RoxanneApril 26, 2007 2:59 PM

What about TV remotes? Or Wii controllers? The mind boggles at what could be modified to trigger a simple switch from a distance.

L8ShiftApril 26, 2007 3:11 PM

My SUV remote doesn't seem to work beyond 5' from the vehicle. I need a Daihatsu!!!

(The battery is fresh, I guess I have an old school remote)

Stephan SamuelApril 26, 2007 3:15 PM

The solution isn't to try to anticipate what kind of remote trigger they may use then jam it. The solution is to prevent them from wanting to use a bomb in the first place. I'm no save-the-unemployed-homeless-gay-baby-whales hippy peacenik or anything, but maybe we should spend a couple minutes investigating what these peoples' grievances are and how we can come up with a reasonable solution.

clvrmnkyApril 26, 2007 3:16 PM

L8Shift:

"The key had been modified so its signal covered a longer distance, police said."

You could probably hack your remote device similarly.

nostromoApril 26, 2007 3:24 PM

@Spider:
'I understand the concept of the "movie-plot-threat", but what is the alternative? To do nothing?'

Doing nothing (that wasn't already being done before 9/11) would be better than what we have now.
Deaths from terrorism are so rare that it's not worth doing anything to reduce them. In a typical year, at least 44,000 people die from medical errors in US hospitals. About 50,000 people die from motor vehicle accidents. Doing something about one of these might actually save some lives. How many people died from terrorist attacks in the USA last year?
Estimates of the number of people in the USA who died from obesity last year range up to 300,000 (I know, it seems incredible, but google for "death rates usa" or something similar). So your couch, if it's temptingly comfortable, is about 200 times as dangerous to you as Al Qaeda is.

TanukiApril 26, 2007 3:26 PM

There's such a profusion of non-cellphone 'things' that can be used as wireless remotes with pretty decent coverage. GMRS/FRS/PMR446 radios. CBs. Ham radios. Business-band walkie-talkies. License-free short-haul radio modems. Cordless phones. Apple Airports. Wireless TV-senders. Give a man few hundred dollars and an afternoon in Radio Shack and you could have a remote-detonator that operated on frequencies the authorities could only guess at.

dhasenanApril 26, 2007 3:33 PM

In this case, they know that a certain style of detonator was used, a very common and poorly traceable one, but it's an indicator nonetheless. The probability that someone who has a matching remote entry device is responsible or connected with those responsible for the bombings is higher than the probability that some random person is.

If the keys are unique and reasonable to test, then it's just like connecting someone to a crime involving a physical lock in part because they have the matching key. If the keys aren't unique, the evidence would be a fair bit weaker.

Still, it might well be more difficult to track the car remotes than to track the explosives.

AnonymousApril 26, 2007 4:11 PM

They found a remote, did they find a matching trigger?

Another reason for modifying a remote is to increase it's range; when car-bombs are commonly used, I would rather open/start my car from 100 feet away instead of 5 feet.

The remote could have been dropped by someone unrelated to the bombings or it may have dropped by a bomber.

JamesApril 26, 2007 4:14 PM

What's keeping someone from setting up bombs so that losing connectivity to the cellular network starts a timer? If security forces are blocking cellular signals, then it should be possible to put together a profile of the blanketing and figure out a detonation delay. I'm surprised it isn't being done this way yet.

NegotiationsApril 26, 2007 4:22 PM

@Stephan Samuel

I agree. It's the same message in principle that NBC sent to the thousand or so deeply depressed youths across the nation, and across the globe: the way to get the attention you so desperately want to is commit a horrible, gruesome act of violence. Then, and only then, will we all pay attention to you and your self-important demands.

What's more, these guys have proved themselves quite amenable to reasonable discussion.

I wonder what other groups may adopt the methodology of "bomb first, negotiate second", once we show them that it works.

http://article.nationalreview.com/?...

MyCatApril 26, 2007 4:26 PM

Perhaps the Daihatsu associated with this particular key no longer exists because it was used as a car bomb?

AqualungApril 26, 2007 4:55 PM

@James,

I remember reading an article (probably here) a while back about the cat-and-mouse game being played by the US in Iraq vs. the insurgents... initially the devices were being triggered by a remote signal, to which US forces started using ECM to block the trigger signal, which in turn prompted the insurgents to switch to using a dead-man's-switch type setup which would actually be *triggered* by the ECM.

antimediaApril 26, 2007 5:13 PM

Bruce, you have lots of criticisms of the methods employed to deter attacks, but I haven't seen you offer one solution. Do you have any?

@nostromo "Deaths from terrorism are so rare that it's not worth doing anything to reduce them."

Make sure to tell your family that so that, if you ever are killed by a terrorist attack, they will know not to sue anyone for negligence.

Swiss ConnectionApril 26, 2007 5:29 PM

@antimedia

The solution is a different political system that forces politicians to act in the interests of the public at large and not just a small elite subset thereof!

antimediaApril 26, 2007 5:36 PM

@Swiss Connection - try giving a useful answer - for example, rather than suppressing cell phone signals to deter their use in roadside bombs, what would you suggest be done?

We're not talking about politicians. We're talking about security.

Nice try, though.

antimediaApril 26, 2007 5:38 PM

@Stephen Samuel "I'm no save-the-unemployed-homeless-gay-baby-whales hippy peacenik or anything, but maybe we should spend a couple minutes investigating what these peoples' grievances are and how we can come up with a reasonable solution."

The solution already exists; convert to Islam, give up your freedom and submit to sharia law.

If you don't want to do that, then you've got a problem.

Not a dhimmiApril 26, 2007 6:17 PM

@Make sure to tell your family that so that, if you ever are killed by a terrorist attack, they will know not to sue anyone for negligence.

Precisely! The problem here is the hysteria of the "do something, do anything!" societal attitude when the only effective cures are worse than the disease.

technologygirlApril 26, 2007 7:58 PM

Crap! This is the movie-plot threat I wanted to submit to the contest. Stupid real world. Always getting in the way... :-p

John PhillipsApril 26, 2007 8:33 PM

@Antimedia: While we may never be able to totally eliminate the threat from such extreme extremists, it is possible to reduce whatever support they receive to such a low level that they are effectively ineffective and marginalised in the societies they rely on for that support. It has been done often enough in the past, however, it is not really a security issue but a political one. In the meantime, many of the steps taken in the name of so called security are largely ineffective and generally any perceived threat is simply used by politicians to limit all our rights, while appearing to be doing 'something', but which is mostly only security theatre.

Not a dhimmiApril 26, 2007 9:40 PM

@Big AL

Spot on! No point in negotiating with a clearly diseased mind. Best to just wipe it out.

Bruce your blog has clearly attracted the attention of a fanatical and irrational community whom by the very nature of their own quasi-religious belief in the evil of a religion can not contribute anything to this blog beyond exemplifying the least rational of risk evaluations.

You could do much worse than to take the one bit of sane advice they have offered and prune their off-topic flame-baiting from the discussion here.

bad JimApril 26, 2007 11:25 PM

The comments here lately have been infested with right-wing authoritarians, people so crippled with fear that there's simply no point in arguing with them.

You can read a new book by Bob Altemeyer on the personality type. Once you do, though, you won't find them so amusing anymore. (PDF format, several chapters at my URL)

TankApril 27, 2007 12:58 AM

two years ago I blogged about...
....
Efforts to restrict cell phone usage because of this threat are ridiculous.
....
we simply force the bad guys to modify their tactics. Lots of money spent: no security gained.

If the time period for them to modify their tactics is 2 years that seems like a pretty good gain.

Either way, who gives a toss. Why pick out counterinsurgency tactics practiced in a country where the risks are only a couple of hundred deaths from bombings a year.
Why not focus on Iraq and Afghanistan where thousands of people are killed every year by bombings.

Perhaps because saying 3 years after the fact that carrying cell jamming devices on humvees won't stop all trigger mechanisms when there are 10,000 examples of this already being evident wouldn't look that useful ?

TankApril 27, 2007 1:01 AM

Bruce your blog has clearly attracted the attention of a fanatical and irrational community whom by the very nature of their own quasi-religious belief in the evil of a religion can not contribute anything to this blog beyond exemplifying the least rational of risk evaluations.
Posted by: Not a dhimmi at April 26, 2007 09:40 PM

Er... so what's the problem ?
Non-contributions relating to the least rational risk evaluations is hardly off-topic.

Take a look at what is being discussed. The threat of bombings in Thailand. If he put up a post about shark attacks in Norway would it be any clearer ?

Not a dhimmiApril 27, 2007 2:17 AM

@Either way, who gives a toss. Why pick out counterinsurgency tactics practiced in a country where the risks are only a couple of hundred deaths from bombings a year.
Why not focus on Iraq and Afghanistan where thousands of people are killed every year by bombings.

@Perhaps because saying 3 years after the fact that carrying cell jamming devices on humvees won't stop all trigger mechanisms when there are 10,000 examples of this already being evident wouldn't look that useful ?

Tank, you have confused the forest for the trees. It isn't about "cells phones are remote detonators" it is about rational security trade-offs.

Using localized radio jammers on humvees was a good trade-off because the cost was low - easy to implement and it didn't really affect anyone beyond 10-20 meters from the jammer, but it did immediately blunt the most common attack. So when the Iraqi insurgents figured out how to make deadman switches, neutralizing the jammers, we were not any worse off than before and had saved lives in the meantime. Low cost, high value == good security trade off.

Thailand scaring the entire populace into never returning missed calls on their cells was a bad trade-off because the cost was high - if the advice were actually followed, the entire society would suffer because their cellphones were now less useful tools. All for a threat scenario that itself was highly unlikely to begin with. So when the Thai insurgents switched from cell phones to car remotes, the local society and economy had paid a comparitively high price and saved few if any lives. High cost, extremely low value == bad security trade off.

gregApril 27, 2007 2:18 AM

I can think of more than 20 remote bomb trigering methods of the top of my head. Thats without wiring up my own wireless remote trigger.

Lets see:
RC plane Remote control.
Pagers
Cell Phones
RT phones (They are different aka used a lot in taxies)
Radio Ham stuff (theres a lot of different types).
Optical based, ie IR ports.
Ripple switches (OK not wirless but quite effective)

then there plain boring timers. Also even based triggers, like a accelerometer that goes off when the speed is X or a altimeter. Or detonate on Jamming or cell signal loss.

It should also be noted that some of these things *have* been used.

You can't stop the signal to detonate a bomb. All you do is stop the people that are tring to rescure or otherwise from comunicating.

AndyApril 27, 2007 3:18 AM

@AntiMedia, @Negotiations, @Big AL

Yes, don't negotiate because that works so well! On-going conflict, well, forever. Whereas, deplorable as negotiation with the IRA is, it seems to be working in Northern Ireland. (As a Northern Irish Protestant, it is galling - but the place is more peaceful).

Without negotiation you can't recognise someone's legitimate greivances, and your enemies support base will grow. Deal with the worst complaints, and they'll lose support.

They are sick minds, but you have to wonder why they're sick. That means talking to them - and doing so is NOT tacit agreement with them.

@Antimedia - moderate Muslims probably wonder how they can have peace with the West - and the answer they see is "convert to Christianity (American Christianity at that), give up your values, and submit to capitalism and the democratic government the West wants you to have. That's why both sides want to fight.

Back on topic, I could build a remote like this with stuff out of a Radio Shack - so lots of people could. The only easy security response is 'Don't Panic'. The 'Stiff upper lip' was what saw London through the Blitz - and that was a terror attack (albeit in wartime).

Fred F.April 27, 2007 8:36 AM

It is a slowly self correcting situation I am afraid. What would happen is we will learn to live with terrorism to the point we will not worry so much and their methods will grow old. It will just show a little bit in the nightly news and that is it. At that point there won't be much romantic/idealistic pay for those killing themselves in suicide bombs or those risking their lives living the life of a terrorist. At that point they will join the political process. How long will it take? Look at Ireland/Spain/Colombia/USA, etc. It takes a long while but it happens.

bacApril 27, 2007 8:43 AM

Many years ago, I worked at a car dealership that carried about 250 cars on average. Most of the cars had keyless entry systems. There were times, I could unlock more than one car on the lot with the same keyless remote. The same for the actual keys themselves. Keyless remotes and keys aren't 100 percent unique. Kind of like garage door openers.

So there is a possibility that a false positive can occur.

Another thought is that blank keyless remotes can be purchased separately from the car. Normally, the dealership programs the new keyless remote for the particular car. These blank keyless remotes could be stolen then programmed to the bomb. Authorities would then only be able to trace the remotes back to a particular store or dealership.

antimediaApril 27, 2007 9:14 AM

@Andy "@Antimedia - moderate Muslims probably wonder how they can have peace with the West - and the answer they see is "convert to Christianity (American Christianity at that), give up your values, and submit to capitalism and the democratic government the West wants you to have. That's why both sides want to fight."

Because forced conversions to Christianity and the implementation of biblical law and the murder of infidels is so common in America, right?

I almost feel embarrassed responding to your silly argument. The idea that there is some kind of one to one correspondence between the murdering Islamofacist savages and what America is doing in Iraq and elsewhere is not even worthy of comment.

AnonymousApril 27, 2007 9:55 AM

@nostromo

We are talking about preventing roadside bombs. Which, while not common in the USA, are fairly common in Iraq. Where the probability of being killed by them is much greater than any medical mistake at one of their hospitals.

FooDooHackedYouApril 27, 2007 11:06 AM

hey this sounds like gun control :) let's go after the criminals and terrorists instead of the technology

remember, guns don't kill people...bears kill people. darn bears!

jayhApril 27, 2007 11:11 AM

There is a common saying 'freedom isn't free'. There's a common interpretation as a reference to soldiers sacrifice but there is another very real sense that it is true: Freedom carries risk. In a free society where people have privacy and access to technology, and can wander without answering to authorities it is definitely easier to do occasional killing. How much do you value freedom?

I value mobility enough to risk a traffic accident, I value freedom enough to risk an occasional terrorist (or criminal) incident

guvn'rApril 27, 2007 12:08 PM

@Andy, @John Phillips, @Stephan Samuel - well said!

@Roxanne, @Greg - exactly the point, a bomb trigger is simply a switch, a binary device that can be changed by anything that can flip one bit of logic.

the point of Stephan Samuel's excellent suggestion, and John and Andy's comments, is that the only solution is to change the political logic that motivates organized terror - and distinguishes it from the disorganized individual insanity shown at Va Tech.

The problem we have now is that we're trying to solve both problems with a single solution, but as long as the political logic remains the same we'll see the success we see every day in news from Baghdad - more of the same. Meanwhile we have security theater tightening the authoritarian grip strangling freedom.

@jayh, good point. remember that Tim McVeigh saw himself as a freedom fighter. it's a short step from that to suicide bombing for those who value freedom enough to pay that price. That's another bit of political logic, certainly not lost on those in positions of authority!

RogerApril 30, 2007 7:51 AM

All these observations about politics and so forth are interesting, but am I the only one who finds the entire story doubtful?

Keyless remotes typically have a maximum range of about 20 feet, which is more than an order of magnitude too short to trigger a car bomb safely. In fact it's close to two orders of magnitude. Furthermore nearly all the internal circuitry is on one custom IC, which cannot easily be modified.

Apart, perhaps, from adding an external amplifier and/or external directional antenna (either of which would totally negate any camouflage benefits from using the key fob), I really can't see this happening.

Maybe, they mean the bombers have constructed their own powerful, custom transmitter and concealed it in a key fob. Or maybe they mean they constructed their own powerful custom transmitter and used a KeeLoq chip for security/safety. Either way, it would mean the builders were electronics experts with a high degree of skill in both digital and RF fields, and could build any darned remote control they like.

But it's kind of unlikely. I think that in fact, someone has found the key fob after the blast and jumped to conclusions.

Johnny DaneMay 16, 2007 6:27 AM

@Stephan Samuel who said:
---
The solution isn't to try to anticipate what kind of remote trigger they may use then jam it. The solution is to prevent them from wanting to use a bomb in the first place. I'm no save-the-unemployed-homeless-gay-baby-whales hippy peacenik or anything, but maybe we should spend a couple minutes investigating what these peoples' grievances are and how we can come up with a reasonable solution.
---
I couldn't agree more. From my european view, there has been too much reaction with too little reflection. And the US bullying of business/alliance partners to implement whatever they come up with in Washington does not help at all. We would all be better off, if the US would enter a discussion on more equal terms instead of being so quick on the draw.

MichaelMay 16, 2007 1:07 PM

@antimedia "Because forced conversions to Christianity and the implementation of biblical law and the murder of infidels is so common in America, right?"

So what you're saying is that uneducated people in the Middle East should know America better than to believe what they see in our media.

Yeah.

Just like you know better than to believe what you see about Islam in the media? Um...

But your notion that it's ridiculous to compare our actions to ours on a 1:1 basis is spot-on, because so far we've killed a whole lot more Iraqis than the Saudis killed of us. And zero Saudis, of course, but hey, who's counting? Not you, naturally, because you're too fucking stupid.

KevinMay 16, 2007 3:41 PM

Blocking cell phones to avoid usage of
cell phones as detonators is silly.
The bad guys can just switch to consistent
loss of cell phone signal + time delay
as the detonation trigger.

The problem with stupid responses is
1) they waste time $$ and effort
2) they confuse the issues
3) they tend to prevent good responses
(Gresham's law applies to security not
just currency)

Why make the lives of terrorists any
easier by implementing bad pseudo-
security?

MarlenusMay 17, 2007 5:13 AM

IMHO, the only practical effect of mobile call suppression is to accustom people to give up their rights for alleged "security".

As a lot of wise people pointed out before, there are very simple ways to circumvent this limitation for a terrorist.

Only common people is affected.
Should we say "that will teach you"?

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