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    The Meter Dash: How to Hack Parking

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    Parking is a real drag. Everything about it sucks, especially in the city. If you’re not willing to shell out a bunch of hard cash to some sketchball lot attendant, you’re forced to waste precious time idling around, waiting for a street spot to free up. And then you have to throw all your laundry change to the parking meter god, a trollish ’lil bit of Depression Era techno-wonder that sucked down its first coin 77 years ago today in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Man, parking sucks.

    If indeed the end is nigh for curbside meters, it’s sure taking a minute to phase out the unsightly totems. You still see the wretched stumps all over pretty much every concrete spread where a minimum 20,000 humans shuffle around sadly in their sad ‘02 Mazda Accords. You’ll be hard pressed, further, to find someone who actually enjoys sticking their monies in meters. (Seriously, try and find me that person. You can’t. Nobody loves you, parking meter.) And if you’re from Chicago, like me, where in a show of sheer idiocy the city inked a deal in 2008 that effectively handed over the meter show to a Morgan Stanley-led partnership for the next 75 years, you bear a special hatred for the pervasive coin-time sucks above and beyond the usual gripes.

    No surprise, then, that the parking meter dash is arguably one of modern society’s longest running hacks. For almost as long as meters have been around folks have been messing with the machines – if not for quick hauls in pocket change, then for equally trollish jabs at what meters represent: A largely unchanged fixture of the oppressive, sprawling urban milieu.

    Lolly Sticks

    Yes, this video is a bit dated. The schmaltzy innuendos don’t work, either. Hell, I’m not even sure if the hack itself even works. I haven’t given it a go. But it certainly makes a case for quite literally sticking it to the man.

    The Actual Hack


    As a couple of dudes from San Francisco demonstrated in 2009, so-called “smart meters” aren’t hard to hack. Electronic meters, like their coin-slotted predecessors, are built to withstand physical beatings and vandalism (but not really: see below), though their manufacturers still really take little account for people prying open the readers and crossing the wires, so to speak.

    In short, the San Francisco trio spoofed the meters via deduction:

    The hackers collected data on a variety of parking meters, which vary by manufacturer and city. They bought older parking meters on eBay in order to find out what electronics they used… Once they disassembled the meters, they found there wasn’t that much protecting the computer inside. The systems were meant to protect against vandalism, but not against hacking. The researchers used hardware detection devices to figure out how the chips worked and then reverse engineered what the software running on the chips did. None of the data paths in the devices were encrypted. They also used a digital oscilloscope to read the values on smart cards. The key flaw in the San Francisco system is that the interaction between the smart card and the meter’s electronic reader was unprotected.

    “If we could figure this out in three days," Joe Grand, one of the hackers, said at the Black Hat security conference, “I guarantee you that somebody else is out there already doing it.”

    Brute Force

    Failing more sophisticated scams, go medieval / Menards on the totems.

    There’s the classic bud-nip à la booze-y Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, for one. Or, to make a real show of it (see: above), dynamite the meters. Or, just start chainsawing the bastards in half.

    Top image: Dynamited meter in the UK (via John Connor / Press Associates Ltd.)

    Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson