The Government of Canada Seeks to Ban the Flipper Zero, SDR Dongles Over Car Theft Fears

Company behind the popular multi-tool calls for "any evidence" of the Flipper Zero being used in vehicle thefts.

Gareth Halfacree
10 days agoSecurity / HW101 / Automotive

The Government of Canada has announced a crackdown on software-defined radio devices, including the popular Flipper Zero multi-tool, in response to a spate of car thefts — despite the Flipper Zero's complete unsuitability for grand theft auto.

"Auto theft is a problem the government can't tackle alone. At today’s auto theft summit, we sat down with provincial leaders, mayors, law enforcement and industry to find solutions and steps we can take together to eradicate the scourge of auto theft in Canada," François-Philippe Champagne, minister for innovation, science, and industry, claimed following the conclusion of the National Summit on Combating Auto Theft.

"Criminals have been using sophisticated tools to steal cars. And Canadians are rightfully worried. Today, I announced we are banning the importation, sale and use of consumer hacking devices, like flippers [sic], used to commit these crimes."

"We have heard the message from Canadians: all orders of government, Federal, Provincial, and Municipal, must work together with police, the auto industry, the insurance sector, and stakeholders to deal with auto thefts," added Arif Virani, Minister of Justice and Canada's attorney general. "I am grateful to everyone who took part in today’s summit. We did more than talk shop. We came away with a plan to take on the criminals who are compromising the safety of our communities."

That plan, though, is likely to raise eyebrows — containing, as it does, a proposal to "ban devices used to steal vehicles by copying the wireless signals for remote keyless entry, such as the Flipper Zero, which would allow for the removal of those devices from the Canadian marketplace through collaboration with law enforcement agencies."

Hitting mass production back in 2021 following a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the Flipper Zero — originally billed as "the hacker's multi-tool," before "hacker" was elided in favor of "geeks" to avoid the negative connotations associated with the label — is a handy hardware multi-tool that covers a range of use-cases from wired general-purpose input/output (GPIO) tasks to sub-gigahertz radio, Near-Field Communication (NFC), and even infrared signal capture and playback. Its uses are numerous — but, to the best of anyone's knowledge, do not extend to making automotive theft easier.

That's not to say technology doesn't play a part in modern vehicle thefts: in addition to wired attacks against the CAN bus, many vehicles are susceptible to attacks to their keyless entry and start systems — the most common of which is a simple signal-boost attack, in which a high-gain antenna and power amplifier positioned close enough to the key fob amplifies its signal to reach the target vehicle, unlock its doors, and start its engine.

The Flipper Zero, however, can't do this — yet is the only device specifically name-dropped in the governmental announcement. Despite that, it's unlikely to be the only hardware affected should the proposal make its way to law: any ban which would block the sale of radio hardware suitable for car theft would, by its nature, cover almost the entire software-defined radio (SDR) market.

The proposal comes on the back of skyrocketing car losses, with Quebec reporting a 50 per cent rise in vehicle thefts year-on-year in 2022, closely followed by Ontario at 48.3 per cent, Atlantic Canada at 34.5 per cent, and Alberta at 18.35 per cent. These figures, however, are not broken down by category, with many being the result of low-tech carjackings and others the work of what the government describes as "lower level threat groups, with violent gangs being the most prevalent" rather than high-tech hackers.

"We'd appreciate it if you could provide any evidence of Flipper Zero being involved in any criminal activities of this kind," the gadget's creators, Flipper Devices, wrote on Twitter in response to the proposal's very specific name-dropping of the tool. "We're not aware of any events like this and frankly speaking not sure what was the reason for this discussion to begin with."

The Government of Canada has published its Statement of Intent, signatories to which include Honda Canada, GM Canada, and Toyota, along with insurance firms and the Global Automakers of Canada trade group. Thus far, no timescale has been provided for a debate on the proposed ban.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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