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November|December 2004
Who Needs Keys? By Nicholas Thompson
Happy 789th, Magna Carta By Daniel Brook
Onward, Christian Lawyers By Geoffrey Gagnon
Quick on the Trigger By Wendy Davis
Won't You Be My Neighbor? By Samantha M. Shapiro
Cases & Controversies

Who Needs Keys?

Hackers learn how to trespass the old-fashioned way—from a lockpicker.

By Nicholas Thompson

ON A RECENT FRIDAY AFTERNOON a group of scraggly-looking young men convened at a hotel across from Madison Square Garden for the biennial conference of Hackers on Planet Earth, or HOPE. The event was organized by 2600, a quarterly magazine whose name refers to one of the great discoveries in hacker history: that the plastic whistles given away free in boxes of Cap'n Crunch cereal in the early 1970s could be slightly modified to create sound waves of 2600 MHz, a frequency that allowed you to make free calls on the old AT&T phone system.

Nowadays, hackers are more interested in something plastic whistles can't crack: the computer firewalls built by Fortune 500 corporations. But hackers still seem to long for a connection to something tactile. Though most of the events at the HOPE conference dealt with heady technological issues like encryption, one of the best-attended sessions was the one run by Barry Wels, a man whose specialty is digital in a different way.

Wels is known as "The Key" in his native Netherlands, where he is the national lockpicking champion. It takes him about 10 seconds to open the kind of lock you might use to secure your luggage. Bigger locks might take a minute or two. Lockpicking competitions are rare and often underground in the United States, but are common in Europe, where Wels is a frequent contender. He is also president of a lockpicking club with about 75 members that meet weekly to test their skills against new locks.

Most of the locks commonly used to protect our homes have a rotating cylinder tube in the center. If pins surrounding the cylinder align correctly, as happens when someone inserts the appropriate key, the tube will rotate and the lock will open. The lockpicker's challenge is to use a highly developed sense of touch to figure out the amount of force needed to push the pins into the right position. Teaching someone how to do this means explaining what the inside of a lock looks like, and then training him in the basic use of two lockpicking tools, that let you reach inside a lock to feel and move the pins. These items are easily available online, though experienced lockpickers can fashion tools out of everything from street sweeper brush bristles to bicycle spokes.

Locks can also be opened with "pick guns," which force all of the pins into position. But the devices are considered impure by lockpickers like Wels and are liable to damage locks. Pick guns are banned in competitions, which generally require participants to open a number of complicated locks in as short a time as possible without harming any of them.

Wels, who is 37 years old, first came to the HOPE conference in 1996. He's been invited back to every conference since. He is a longtime friend of Emmanuel Goldstein, the editor of 2600, and he also works with hackers at his day job building tap-proof mobile phones. Wels's approach to lockpicking dovetails with the main principles of hacking, which state that information should circulate as widely as possible, and that breaking into systems is acceptable if you cause no harm. Though this way of thinking can be discounted as self-justification, hackers like to say that they break into computers so that they can show what data is not secure. Wels says that one reason he picks locks is to show manufacturers the flaws in their products.

This year, over 400 people stopped by the rickety wooden table where Wels ran a continuous training session through most of Friday afternoon. At any given moment, about 30 people could be found sitting around the table. Each time a few new faces arrived, Wels would introduce the basic techniques, grabbing a lock off the table and opening it about as fast as he could have if he'd had the key. Most new arrivals struggled at first, but every few minutes someone's eyes would widen, and a smile would replace a furrowed brow as a hacker experienced the familiar feeling of outsmarting a security device. They might also have recognized the thrill of doing something not exactly legal: Every state allows licensed locksmiths to carry lockpicking tools, but it's illegal in New York City for unlicensed pickers to mechanically manipulate a lock.

Eighteen hours after Wels kicked off his session, and long after Wels himself had departed, a gaggle of hackers was still at the table, picking away. Not all of Wels's students had found the requisite dexterity, however. One aspiring lockpicker threw down his lock in frustration after struggling with it for 10 minutes. A young man named Andy Carter snapped it up, grabbed a rake, and returned the lock, opened, seconds later. "That one is too easy. It's a joke," he declared defiantly. Carter, age 18 and showing the last signs of acne and the first signs of a beard, had attended Wels's session at the previous HOPE conference two years before, and said he'd been testing his skills in his parents' home ever since.

Practice, of course, makes perfect. Wels said that he likes to refine his lockpicking skills at stoplights. When the light turns red, he grabs a lock he has never picked before and tries to open it before the cars behind him start honking. He says that he usually succeeds, particularly when he can resist the temptation to look at the lock, and that he goes by what he feels going on inside it. "A good lockpicker will have a totally blank stare," he said.

Wels said he has to stay sharp in order to compete with his German rivals, who have the best reputations and the stiffest competitions in the world. One former German champion is even in the process of starting an underwater lockpicking club (lockpicking is more challenging underwater because being submerged impairs your sense of touch). Wels said he is particularly awed by the Germans' powers of concentration. "They could walk into a house party where everyone's jumping up and down—not that they would go to house parties—and just block everything out and pick a lock."

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