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articles » An open letter to the Sport Lock-Picking Community

An open letter to the Sport Lock-Picking Community

Throughout time, people have had a fascination with locks. Locks provide a means of protecting
property, so the key to a lock confers an elite status to the person possessing it. Children eagerly
await the coming of age when they are allowed to carry a key to their parents’ home. As people
grow up, they derive satisfaction from having the authority to control the decision about who will
have a key to their own property. A lock and its key are powerful symbols of ownership as well as
trust.

As architectural details locks are significant in the design of a building. Architects carefully select
the style and finishes of the locks for their buildings to reflect a distinct artistic purpose. Collectors
of locks admire the wide variety of designs of lock handles, trim place, padlocks, cylinders, and keys.
Antique as well as modern locks are studied, cataloged, traded, photographed, exhibited and
purchased by people all over the world.

Locks are unique mechanical puzzles and the solution to their puzzle is their key. To most people,
it appears to be impossible to open a lock without the correct key. Locksmiths are experts who are
familiar with the internal mechanisms of locks and spend their time understanding the diverse
methods used to generate these many different locking puzzles. With their knowledge of the
internal cylinder mechanisms they offer a unique service to their community by evaluating threats
and recommending solutions to secure property and protect the lives of their customers. Many locksmiths
enter the profession because they enjoy the thrill of knowing how to solve the puzzle without
the key, but they remain in the industry because they find their customers value their unique
knowledge and services. A locksmith who installs some dead bolts in a neighborhood where homes
have been burglarized, knows that his work has provided additional safety to the family who lives
there. At the end of the day he goes home with the respect and admiration of the community he has
served. A locksmith never forgets the gratitude expressed by a woman who has sought help to lock
an abusive boyfriend out of her apartment. A lock gives her the ability to resume her life without
fear of attack. The new puzzle on her door is more complicated than the boyfriend can decipher.

Lock picking or manipulating the mechanical puzzle of the lock has been of interest to many people,
for a long time. Perhaps the most famous of lock pickers is Albert Hobbs, an American, who
attended the Great Exhibition in England, in 1851. At this exhibition, Hobbs was able to pick the
“unpickable” Chubb Six Lever Detector Lock, in 25 minutes. Then, he undertook a challenge to open
the Bramah Lock within 30 days. For 16 days, Hobbs worked under supervision and was able to open
the cylinder without damage and the original key still worked. To this day, Hobbs is credited with
developing a technique for lock picking that is identified as the “Hobbs’ method”. To their credit, the
lock manufacturers in England learned from Hobbs’ techniques and made incremental improvements
to their products.

As I was growing up in the Chicago area during the 1950s, I remember hearing about two machinists
who hand made prototype lock cylinders and mailed them to each other without the correct key.
For years, they challenged each other to decipher the intricate mechanical puzzles without damage
to the locks. Most rational people acknowledge that given enough time and resources, anything that
can be made by man can eventually be unmade by another man. The thrill is in the sport of figuring
out how to do it.

So, if any lock puzzle can be deciphered, how can a consumer decide which lock is best to use? Lock
manufacturers and insurance companies from many countries around the world have jointly
developed standards to identify and classify the strength, protection levels, and time required to successfully
attack locks. Such standards help consumers to identify the differences between the various
locks. They use standardized testing of locks against standardized techniques that have been found in
the past to successfully compromise locks. They provide a good basis of comparison for the consumer.
All standards groups recommend that people wishing additional protection against new and uncommon
threats contact locksmiths or other security specialists for supplemental information and guidance.

Within the lock industry there is an unofficial “time-torture” study that tests lock cylinders for
uncommon attacks, and gradually improves the security of the locks. As locks are distributed and sold
around the world, locksmiths and other interested parties, experiment with them to see if a solution
to the mechanical puzzle that does not require the correct key can be found. As these methods are
discovered, they are eventually relayed back to the manufacturer. Most all lock manufacturers have a
number of documented engineering changes that reflect incremental improvements to their products,
due to the solutions uncovered in these unofficial tests. The people who participate in the “timetorture”
study of locks have contributed to the improvements of the locks and thus the security of
the public. Growing up as a child, I remember that my father always has seat belts in our cars before
they were required or furnished by the car manufacturer. As seat belts became mandatory in new
cars, the older cars were pointed out as not being safe, and consumers had a good reason to upgrade
to a newer vehicle that provided greater safety. Air bags and the side-curtain air bags have further
increased passenger safety. In the same way, incremental improvements that are made in the lock
industry contribute to the security and safety of the consumer, but they are not as obvious and the
consumer is often not aware of these improvements.

Most people grow complacent with things they use every day. While lock models are frequently
upgraded, the consumer using a lock is often unaware that improvements have been made, or that
the lock on his door is possibly vulnerable to a new attack. People are used to frequently upgrading
their cellular phone to a new model at considerable expense. However, there is an expectation that a
lock cylinder, which protects both property and personal safety, should last the life of the mortgage of
the house, and protect against threats that have not yet been identified.

Lock manufacturers are reluctant to publicize potential threats to their products primarily because
they do not want to teach criminals how to decipher their mechanical puzzles. While corporations are
often stereotyped as uncaring or greedy, it is my experience that most people in the lock industry are
genuinely concerned with the security of their customers. We do not want to make information
available to persons who would use that information to compromise locks and threaten the security
of the consumer. An abusive boyfriend may not be capable of figuring out how to open the
mechanical puzzle by himself, but it is possible that he could learn by reading about a technique on
the Internet and simply copy what some very talented and dexterous lockpicker has developed. Lock
manufacturers are in business to sell new and enhanced products and want the public to be aware of
any improvements, but not at the expense of supporting criminals or training new ones. Lock
manufacturers are in business to protect people and property, not to compromise their security.

Who is Jon King and what is he doing with our locks? Several months ago, I was contacted by
members of the lock-sport community. They told me that, after many months of work and practice,
Jon had developed a tool that he was using to open some of our locks. He had made some samples of
his tool for the lock-sport community to test and about 20% of the skilled lock pickers who tried his
method were able to open our locks. Jon has perfected a technique that he was able to use, and
furthermore, was able to teach a few others to do what he was able to do.

I got in touch with Jon and asked if he would show me what he was doing, and allow me to see how
his new tool worked. I was interested in evaluating his technique to see what was necessary to
counter it, and thus to improve our product. Jon agreed, and we met with Schuyler Towne on a
Sunday at Jon’s apartment. Schuyler has been involved in the ethics of responsible disclosure and
asked to come to our meeting. It was a pleasure to meet with both of these men. We spent hours
discussing Jon’s work, the lock industry, techniques of solving lock puzzles, and the responsibility of
keeping this information away from criminals. I congratulate these men on their ability and on their
responsibility to the community. I am most impressed with Jon’s fine motor skills, his problem
solving ability and his ethical behavior. As editor, Schuyler knew that if NDE published innuendos,
fabricated half-truths or resorted to scandal-mongering to garner attention, the reputation of his
journal would be reduced to providing entertainment value similar to that of a grocery store
tabloid. I am thankful that he wished to publish information that could be used to educate and
increase security, rather than endanger property and lives. As a result of our meeting, my company
has made additional engineering changes representing incremental improvements in our locking
mechanism. Jon and Schuyler have agreed to withhold release or disclosure of their new information
for a short time, until we have fully implemented our improvements.

While we have worked with many locksmiths and security specialists in the past to improve our
cylinders, this is the first time that we have worked with people in the sport-lock picking community.
I am pleased to know that you have as much concern for the security of the public as those of us in
the lock industry. Again, I welcome you as representatives of the sport-lock picking community, to
the lock industry, and hope that together we can continue to improve the security and safety that
locks provide to the world.

sincerely

Peter field