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Cars vulnerable to PalmPilot signals?

The infrared feature of the popular PalmPilot handheld can be reprogrammed for nefarious purposes, some say.

The PalmPilot has been touted as capable of doing almost anything--from organizing contacts and email to playing games and eventually providing two-way wireless communications. But these handhelds could now excel at another task--breaking into cars.

Palm Computing, the division of 3Com which makes the PalmPilot, perhaps never envisioned that its popular handheld computer could be used to assist hoodlums as well as mobile professionals, but that seems to be the case, according to a recent report from the British science publication New Scientist.

Apparently, the infrared feature in the PalmPilot that allows users to program it for use as a TV remote control can be reprogrammed for nefarious purposes. Late-model cars that feature infrared remote-control keyless locking systems are potentially at risk for such break-ins.

The technique involves software that copies the codes for infrared devices like remote controls, and was discovered by Lars Michael Sorensen, a PC World Denmark columnist.

"It was one of our assistants here who got the idea, and tried it out," said Sorensen in an email interview. "He had a PalmPilot and this freeware program called OmniRemote that turns your Pilot into a TV remote control by 'training' or copying the...infrared signals."

"When I locked the car door, the assistant copied the key simultaneously, and was able to open the doors without any problems," Sorensen said. "There's at least one positive aspect about all this. If you copy your own key onto the PalmPilot and lose the original, you still have a spare."

Similar programs and remotes are available at consumer electronics stores, said Bill Witte, a product manager for the Palm OS, who noted that few cars use infrared locking technology anyway.

"The vast majority of remotes out there are radio frequency keyless entry systems," Witte said. "That fact alone means that if I held a [PalmPilot] up to the car, there is no physical way for it to work."

Palm boasts an enthusiastic developer community and thousands of third-party applications designed to extend the functionality of the handheld device. But this is the first instance of outside applications being used to turn the PalmPilot into an accessory to grand-theft auto, according to Palm.

Additionally, the PalmPilot user demographics don't reveal an undue number of convicted or potential car thieves, Witte said, but declined to comment on whether Palm could be held liable in the case that a PalmPilot was used in this manner.

Though some have raised concerns about insurance reimbursement for victims of PalmPilot perpetrators who would leave no trace of forced entry, experts say the chances of car thieves abandoning the jimmy for a PDA is unlikely and would be covered by auto or homeowners insurance in any case.

"Even if they did succeed in unlocking the doors to the car, you would still have to go in and do something to the steering column," said Dave Hearst, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance. "There are many different ways to break into a car, and many people leave their car unlocked anyway."

Although insurance adjusters do look for signs of forced entry, cars that have been broken into electronically will not have a higher burden of proof for reimbursement, Hearst said. "We recognize that some cars are left unlocked, and (lack of forced entry) alone doesn't disqualify for coverage."