Throw away the key
You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but can you pick your locks?
There’s an old locksmith adage that says, “Locks only keep honest people honest.” But they also keep lovers of puzzles busy with their intricate mechanics and give the do-it-yourself culture a chance to compete in a large international network of lockpickers.
Locksport—competitive lockpicking—has been part of the hacker circuit for a long time, but as open source maker projects rise from the underground, the activity has gained traction around the world. Locksport International refers to locks as “mechanical puzzles,” and pickers often refer to themselves as puzzle enthusiasts. LockCon, the Locksport convention, is held each year in Amsterdam and attracts an international crowd.
Northern Nevada’s makerspace Bridgewire (“Life hacks,” Arts&Culture, Nov. 10) hosts monthly Locksport interest nights to establish Bridgewire as an outpost for The Open Organization of Lockpickers (TOOOL). A membership in TOOOL allows organizations to compete in large competitions, and also gives them access to materials that otherwise may be difficult to come by, like sets of picks and practice locks and an online forum not accessible by outsiders.
While Locksport may conjure up images of fantastical thieves’ guilds, the competition is held without malicious intent, and lockpicking enthusiasts often abide by a strict ethical code. In 1987, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—alleged birthplace of the modern hacking subculture—released a guide to lockpicking, which includes a large “hacking ethics” section. The document lists rules such as, “be subtle; do not steal anything; brute force is the last resort of the incompetent; do not hack alone (just like swimming).” Locksport International’s motto is, “You may only pick locks that you own, or those to which you’ve been given expressed permission to pick by the rightful owner.”
Information on learning how to pick takes some hunting. Manuals are not easily accessible and the most thorough texts are often out of print, but forums and YouTube videos offer tutorials. Picks, too, can be hard to come by—many lockpick vendors require proof that a person seeking lockpicks is a member of law enforcement or security.
But this doesn’t do much to dissuade hackers, both the well-intended and the malicious. They usually just end up making their own.
Long lost locks
The earliest locks have been dated as far back as 4,000 years ago, and remnants have been found scattered around Roman ruins. Lockpick enthusiasts estimate that the art of picking has lasted just as long.
“Where there are locks, there are pickers,” says Bridgewire member Lee Elliott.
But attempting to pick locks from the days of old had much more brutal consequences than the modern locks which have gained the trust of the general public. According to the anonymously authored A Guide to Picking Locks, locks from the Renaissance era would shoot arrows or bullets at anyone attempting to break them.
“If you’re a hasty criminal and want to break into stuff, leave now,” says Bridgewire’s board president Jim Navarro, leader of the Locksport workshops and security specialist. “This is something I utilize in my job to fix things.”
The possession of picks can result in a gross misdemeanor if the owner is not a “tradesman,” or if the picks are intended for “burglarious intent,” according to NRS 205.080. For some, the language of the law is unclear, since the picks are used only on locks designated for practice and are shared by the Bridgewire community. Those who choose to abide by the rules also choose to never pick public locks or those of another.
Navarro is adamant about this, because illegal activity by a member of Bridgewire could have legal repercussions and jeopardize their TOOOL membership. He also emphasizes the idea that lockpicking is intended to improve communities, not vandalize them. Lockpickers often share the weaknesses they find in locks with locksmiths and lockmaking companies to help strengthen security.
“More people picking locks is better for the community,” says Navarro. “You get improvement. The general public knowing how to do it is a good thing.”
He also hopes that the public will be more aware of what they rely on to protect their property and their family.
“I look at this in a purely practical sense,” he says. “Be conscientious of what your locks can do.”
“My mom is actually proud of me for this,” says Jason Bogal while repairing a broken pick. “We’re not a den of thieves like people think we are.”
“Knowing a few basic ideas will actually reduce the chances of burglary happening,” Navarro says.
He nods toward Elliott, who’s passing out pieces of scrap metal for the attendees to test in their locks. “Use it [the knowledge] responsibly.”
At each Locksport Interest Night, Navarro leads the attendees through lockpicking techniques to prepare them for competition. The night consists of training, practicing and short “sudden death” matches. The buy-in is $3, and money goes toward future projects for the makerspace.
On Jan. 10, the focus was on shimming combination locks. Basically, a strip of metal is cut from a soda can, folded and cut into a V-shape, and wriggled under the shackle, rotated until it releases. Just a few weeks ago, a special “shim-proof” combination lock was put on the market, but with a piece of scrap metal, Elliott was able to open it within seconds.
“The manufacturing tolerance of these locks is sloppy,” Navarro says. “Utilize the idiosyncrasies. All locks, even if you don’t have picks, you can defeat.”
Three pickers competed in the shim match, including Bridgewire member Craig Bergland and father and son team Eric and Ben Jennings. Bergland won. The next competition was harder—competitors had to pick a lock with their hands and the materials in a pillow case so they couldn’t see. The visual obstruction makes the process difficult, since picks have to be inserted in a way that pushes in on the pieces that hold the lock in place, and a tension wrench has to be oriented in the proper direction for the lock to spin open once the clasp is released. Reggie Dablo opened one within a couple of minutes.
“I’m just really passionate about this stuff,” says Navarro, a lock and pick in hand. Two boys clutching their own locks look over his arm and watch, in amazement, as he pulls the shackle loose in a matter of seconds. Navarro hands the lock to one of them and shrugs. “Not much to it, really.”