“Cloning” is one of those buzzwords that have crept into our daily language in this new age of technology. More often than not, you hear the term used interchangeably with duplication, but in reality, a clone is much more than a simple duplicate. In the biological world, clones are identical...
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The process of cloning one of these fixed code transponders involves triggering the original transponder to broadcast its signal, recoding that signal, and then programming a new transponder to broadcast the same signal as the original. Most first generation transponder cloning devices were limited to cloning fixed code transponders.
Of course, a transponder cloning device also requires a key that has a programmable transponder that is capable of mimicking the behavior of the original transponder. This is where the legal issues come into play. While it is theoretically possible to clone any fixed code transponder, the technology to actually do it may violate patents and copyrights. This is why the original Ford keys, which used the simplest technology, were not clonable for a very long time.
Rolling Code Transponders
Rolling codes were the next step forward from fixed code transponders. A rolling code transponder might be programmed with several hundred individual codes. Every time the transponder is activated, it rolls to the next code in the series. The vehicle would not only know every one of the codes, but also the proper sequence for the codes to be used.
This type of system is more prone to problems than the fixed code system and for that reason is not as popular with the manufacturers. If a key is repeatedly exposed to the kind of signals that trigger it, such as military radar systems, the system can get out of sync. Also, having multiple keys or a spare key that is rarely used will confuse the system occasionally.
This type of system would be much harder to clone. The cloning device would have to force the original key to transmit all of the codes and record them in the correct sequence on the clone key. And of course, the clone key would have to have a proper chip that can be programmed with this complex information and then mimic the operation of the original key without violating patents and copyrights.
The transmissions from encrypted systems are much harder to clone, but at the same time present the manufacturers with fewer problems than the rolling code systems. Encrypted systems work on a completely different principal than either fixed code or rolling code systems. In an encrypted system, the information that the transponder broadcasts may never be the same twice.
Each encrypted transponder has a unique “Algorithm,” which is a step-by-step procedure for a series of calculations. Basically, every time a transponder key is used, it takes a math test. The vehicle computer will generate a random number and transmit it to the key. When the transponder in the key receives the random number, it will then process that number through its algorithm and send back the result. Since the vehicle computer knows the algorithm for each key and the random number, it also knows what to expect back from the key. Only when the TDM receives the correct answer, will it send the “Run” signal.
The level of encryption is expressed as the number of “bits” used in the key needed to decrypt the transmission. Early encrypted systems used a 40-bit encryption. In order for a computer to “crack” a 40-bit encryption, it would have to try approximately a trillion different combinations. (A trillion is about twice the population of humans on the entire Earth!) A 40-bit encryption level is now considered to be a low level of encryption despite the fact that it is a much higher level of encryption than the military used only a few decades ago. In fact, up until 2000, 40-bit encryption systems were the highest level of encryption that the U.S. government would allow to be exported.
The latest systems use an 80-bit encryption, but some are already talking about 128-bit encryption.
It’s hard to make an argument for these higher levels of encryption solely as an ant-theft issue. Many believe that manufacturers are increasing the encryption level to prevent cloning. Since transponder keys were first introduced, key duplication and replacement has gone from being a nuisance issue to becoming a profit center for many vehicle dealerships. Ford in particular is encouraging dealerships to provide as much key service as possible while doing everything they can to convince owners that the only way to have a “Genuine Ford” key for their vehicle is to bring it back to the dealership.
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