How professional locksmiths are getting picked apart online.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 23 2008 3:39 PM

Pick a Lock, Any Lock

YouTube makes it easy to learn the finer points of breaking and entering—and locksmiths aren't happy.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Locksmiths and lock manufactures have found themselves in a jam. The skills of their trade, passed down through generations under conditions of occult secrecy, have been jimmied open online (subscription required). The professionals are crying foul over enthusiasts of "locksport"—amateur lock pickers who congregate on the Web to discuss how to pick locks. The amateurs do this for fun, not mischief, they say; there's a sublime thrill in charming a deadbolt to turn your way. And they argue that by finding and publishing flaws in some of the most popular locks on the market—from the locks you've got on your front door to those the president has on his —they're forcing improvements in security. Lock professionals say the opposite is true: that in showing people how to pick locks, hobbyists are swinging your doors wide open to criminals.

This is a familiar tale. Its plot points echo those of many recent computer-security debates. An entrenched community that's used to working in secret suddenly sees its entire business upended by the secrecy-busting ways of the Internet. It's a fate suffered by voting machine firms, software companies, and ATM manufacturers. Now it's happening to locksmiths and lockmakers, too.

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But there are a few interesting wrinkles to the skirmish between amateur and professional lock wranglers. For one thing, unlike security-services company Diebold, the locksmiths and lockmakers aren't just fighting a new crop of activists. They're fighting a new subculture—really, a new sport.

The Web has helped clean up the very act of picking a lock. Breaking into locks once reeked of criminality; if you dared to try it, you did so in secret, because if you were spotted, folks would assume you were up to no good. Now, picking locks has gone legit. Recreational lock pickers meet regularly in community centers around the country, challenging each other to break new locks as casually as others nearby work to break the Queen's Gambit. On Web culture blogs, fans of locksport enjoy a place besides cryptography enthusiasts and DRM hackers as practitioners of a morally defensible, geeky dark art.

What's occasioned the image rehabilitation, pickers say, is that they can now declare publicly what once was only acknowledged privately: Cracking locks is lots of fun. "It's much better than chess," says Marc Tobias, a legendary lock buster whose book Locks, Safes, and Security: An International Police Reference is considered the bible of the field. "It involves mental imagery and physical dexterity, and it's a real thrill when you open something you weren't meant to be opening." Josh Nekrep, a Canadian business coach who runs Lock Picking 101 and Locksport International, the primary online and offline groups organizing the new sport, compares picking to "doing a Rubik's Cube in the dark."

Some professional locksmiths have embraced this cultural shift; several, Nekrep says, are active members of online lock-picking groups. But many locksmiths are alarmed by the expansion of their field. The locksmiths' worry may be partly monetary—if you're locked out of your apartment, you might call your locksport buddy rather than a locksmith.

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