Lock Picking for Sport Cracks the Mainstream

For more than 4,000 years humans have used locks to secure some of their most private places and prized possessions. And for just as long, other humans have been trying to find ways around them.

Now, videogamers, hackers and others who just enjoy a good challenge, are coming out of the woodwork -- or hiding in it -- and adopting lock picking as their new hobby of choice.

Though some fear the hobby amounts to nothing more than burglary training, lock pickers claim they're not out to hurt anyone and may even help the public by exposing flaws in commonly used locks and other physical security devices.

'It's the Challenge'

For pickers like Andrew Howard, "lock-sports" are all about an intellectual challenge that is put on par with games like chess and compared to the '80s puzzle phenomenon Rubik's Cube.

"For me, it's about improving yourself," said Howard. "It's the challenge of being able to increase the physical dexterity in your fingers and being able to mentally imagine what's happening inside the lock."

Howard, a 24-year-old Brisbane, Australia, resident, says that like many of his lock-picking peers, his interest in picking was sparked by a job he did in network security.

"I'm a database programmer for the education department and I dabbled in Internet security for a while last year," he said.

Howard says it was a "natural progression" for his interests in computer security to expand to physical security.

"I thought it would be cool to pick a lock," he said cavalierly. "So I did and I've been into it ever since."

For people like Howard, security is like a puzzle. The idea is to make the puzzle so difficult that no man or machine can solve it.

A lock works very much the same way: the better the lock, the more complicated the puzzle, the harder it is to open without a key.

'Security Through Obscurity'

On the other side of the globe, in Alberta, Canada, another picker who goes by the alias Varjeal, enjoys picking for similar reasons, but he says that for him it's not just fun, it's revolution.

"I kind of undertook my own personal little way of changing things," he said. I want to "encourage people to come up with new ideas in regards to physical and lock security, because in the past it just hasn't been done. We're relying on technology that's basically a couple of hundred years old."

A locksmith for the last six years and a moderator for lockpicking Web site lockpicking101.com, Varjeal asked that his real name not be used, partly because he doesn't know how law enforcement and the public will feel about his hobby, but also because he fears retribution from the locksmithing community.

Varjeal believes the locksmith industry's philosophy of "security through obscurity" is working to the detriment of the public by limiting access to information on flaws and defects to those only in the business.

Through the popularization of lock-sports, Varjeal believes a new flow of ideas, improvements and excitement will push the industry to make positive changes in physical security.

It's something he says he already sees happening.

"There are a lot of puzzle-minded people that are now looking at locksmithing and the whole physical security industry as a viable career," he said.

Finding Flaws

Marc Webber Tobias, one of the pre-eminent and more outspoken experts on locks, safes and security, agrees.

"I think that the more people from diverse fields that are looking at locks and security the better," he said.

But at Associated Locksmiths of America or ALOA, an organization that represents locksmiths across the United States, they concede that people outside the industry may have something to contribute, but stop short of endorsing lock picking as a hobby.

"We're not for pointing out physical security flaws to the general public," said David Lowell, ALOA's associate executive director. "Just like I'm sure the Atomic Energy Commission would not endorse the Web sites that tell you how to build a nuclear bomb. It's the same thing."

Lowell says that ALOA isn't against identifying flaws in physical security, but they are opposed to revealing that information to the general public.

"No one would ever have a problem with someone just sitting in their basement or even a group gathering in a living room or at a meeting or something and just kind of discussing ways to pick locks," Lowell said. "But then disseminating that into the New York Times or something like that goes beyond the scope of responsibility."

'They Don't Get It'

But Tobias and many pickers argue that making flaws public is exactly what the industry and the public needs.

"They don't get it," he said.

"The fact is, so what if a hacker can crack a lock," Tobias asked. "It just means the lock's got a problem. So what? My response is 'go fix it!' "

Though the word "hacker" may conjure up images of surreptitious computer geeks hovering over their keyboards to sinister ends, the term has actually broadened in meaning over the years.

Now a "hacker" is anyone who likes to fiddle, alter, play or tinker with software or hardware to make it do something it's not supposed to -- like opening a lock without a key.

"The locksmiths associate anybody in these sports/locksmithing clubs as hackers. They think they're all criminals and miscreants," he said. "It's housewives, it's doctors, it's lawyers, it's architects, it's newsmen, it's kids, it's hackers, it doesn't matter."

Evidence of this can be found at the annual Dutch Open lock picking competition or any one of a number of computer hacking conventions held around the world that include lock picking contests.

A Common Misconception

Because lock picking takes skill, ability, practice and patience, pickers like Varjeal say you're more likely to suffer a break-in at the hands of a bumbling robber armed with a crowbar than a set of lock picks.

"There's a misconception that teaching people a skill like this is going to mean that more people are going to use it for an illegal purpose than a legal one," he said. "Truth be known there are a lot faster and easier ways to bypass a lock rather than picking."

Douglas Chick, author of "Steel Bolt Hacking: The Computer Man's Guide to Lock Picking" says he's constantly asked the same question about his book, "doesn't it bother you that you are teaching people to steal?"

"Thieves use hammers and crowbars to smash and grab," Chick said in an e-mail interview. "Lock-sport practitioners are as likely to use their skill to steal, as a locksmith would be."

Chick's claim is supported by David Estrada, a spokesman for the Boston Police Department, who says that if you define lock picking as using an intricate device to simulate the action of a key -- as lock sports enthusiasts do -- it's not something you'll see too often in Boston.

"I've been working with the department for 10 years," said Estrada, "and I've never heard of an 'intricate device' being used for a burglary -- unless you consider a screwdriver an intricate device."

Even so, Chick admits lock-sports are not exactly mainstream -- yet.

"There is no question to the fact that lock picking is a strange and curious skill for someone to want to learn, especially in an already security anxious world," he said. "It is difficult to defend such a sport or brag about book sales on a subject that might very well be in the same light as picking pockets, but it is an underground sport that is growing larger everyday."

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