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

The Canadian government 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.

“Car theft is a problem that the government cannot 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,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, following the conclusion of the National Anti-Theft Summit.

“Criminals have used sophisticated tools to steal cars. And Canadians are rightfully worried. Today I announced that we are banning the import, sale and use of consumer hacking devices such as flippers [sic]used to commit these crimes.”

“We heard the message from Canadians: all government orders, federal, provincial and municipal, must work together with the police, the auto industry, the insurance sector and stakeholders to address car theft,” added Arif Virani, Minister of Justice and the attorney general of canada. “I am grateful to everyone who took part in today’s summit. We did more than talk. We have come up with a plan to deal with criminals who compromise the safety of our communities.”

That plan, however, is likely to raise eyebrows – containing, as it does, a proposal to “ban devices used to steal vehicles by copying wireless remote keyless entry signals, such as the Flipper Zero, which would allow these devices to be removed from the Canadian market by cooperating with law enforcement.”

Hitting mass production already in 2021 the following a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the Flipper Zero — originally billed as a “hacker’s multi-tool” before “hacker” was dropped in favor of “geek” 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 capture and playback. Its uses are numerous, but as far as is known, they do not extend to facilitating car theft.

That’s not to say technology doesn’t play a role in modern vehicle theft: In addition to wired attacks against the CAN busmany vehicles are susceptible to attacks against their keyless entry and start systems – the most common of which is a simple signal amplification attack, where a high-gain antenna and power amplifier located close enough to the key fob amplify their signal, to reach the target vehicle, unlock its doors and start its engine.

The Flipper Zero, however, can’t do that — it’s the only device specifically name-dropped in the government announcement, after all. However, this is unlikely to be the only hardware affected if the proposal becomes law: any ban that 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 amid skyrocketing car losses, with Quebec reporting a 50 per cent year-over-year increase in vehicle thefts 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. However, these figures are not broken down by category, with many resulting from low-tech car thefts and others by what the government describes as “lower-level threat groups, the most prevalent of which are violent gangs”. and not by high-tech hackers.

“We would appreciate it if you could provide any evidence that Flipper Zero is involved in criminal activities of this nature,” wrote the gadget’s creators, Flipper Devices Twitter in response to the very specific removal of the instrument name in the proposal. “We’re not aware of any events like this and frankly we’re not sure what prompted this discussion.”

Government of Canada published a statement of intent, signed by Honda Canada, GM Canada and Toyota, along with insurance companies and trade group Global Automakers of Canada. So far, no timetable has been provided for a debate on the proposed ban.

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