Thursday, October 1, 2015

Locks and Lock Picking

I started writing this article as a basic lesson on locks and how to open them without keys, but I ran into the ethical problem of not wanting to write a “Breaking and Entering 101” article. I don't condone and can't recommend breaking laws for petty reasons, but at the same time I believe that tools and skills are neither good nor evil by themselves; it's the way they are used that is good or evil. Opening a locked door to take the things behind it is generally evil, but I've driven two hours to a friend's retreat only to find that he'd forgotten his keys and I got us in the locked door. Skills are just skills.

I learned the basics of picking locks a long time ago. The way it was explained to me, locks only keep the honest people honest. Anyone who really wants your stuff badly enough will find a way around, or through, any lock. 

If a bad person can't get through a lock, they will start looking for ways to go around it; trying to keep the meth-heads out of our Anhydrous Ammonia (a common ingredient in the production of meth) at work is a constant battle. We get bigger, better locks and they find ways around them, because while they may be stupid enough to play with volatile chemicals, they aren't complete idiots.

I pick up cheap locks to play with, and have a handful of good locks that I use to practice on. In general, you get what you pay for: if you get your locks at the dollar store, they'll be a lot easier to bypass than a decent Master brand lock. Master has kept their place in the market by keeping tight control on the quality of their product, which makes them harder to pick. There are different levels of quality in the Master line, which you'll discover as you begin practicing on them.

There are locks that are extremely difficult to pick:
  • Automobile ignition locks are starting to get to the point where they are not worth trying to pick; it's quicker to use brute force and shred the steering column to bypass the lock. 
    • The use of RFID chips in the key, with the reader being in the steering column, have made it even harder to bypass the locks. 
  • Tubular key locks, where the key is round and has notches on one end, used to be quite secure but the specialized picks for them are now common. 
  • Keys with depressions on the sides instead of notches along the edge are at the “expert” level of picking, and if they use magnets embedded in the key as well it is even more challenging.

Picking locks is time-consuming, regardless of what you see in the movies. Unless you're well-practiced and/or working on a really cheap lock, expect to spend a few minutes opening an unfamiliar one. I don't have the time to go into all of the different types and shapes of picks and their intended uses, but these are good first steps: 
  • A good general-purpose set of picks should cost between $30 and $80, and be smaller than an average smart phone.
  • Find a good book -- Visual Guide to Lock Picking is one of the better ones. 
  • Avoid the “Learn how to pick locks in X minutes!” type books; they're not as inclusive as the more expensive books. 
  • Spring-loaded or vibrating “pick guns” only work on certain types of locks (pin tumbler) and while they may be quicker than standard picks, they are not as small. 
This skill, like any other, gets rusty without constant practice. Luckily, there are locksport groups in a few states and meetings in others for people who want to learn more and practice their skills. Locksport International is one group that has a wide variety of resources available for the beginner, including tools and training material. They do have rules, the main one being that you may only open a lock that you own; all others require the express permission of the owner.

Other Methods
There are many other ways to open a lock including shims, “bumping”, and brute force. A good set of bolt cutters is a lot quicker than a set of picks and has other uses -- carrying around a set of picks may be against local laws (commonly “possession of burglary tools”) unless you're a licensed locksmith, but a set of bolt cutters is just a tool. Large hammers and pry bars will defeat most locks or the hardware that they're attached to, but are noisy and the damage done is permanent.

If there is enough interest, I am willing to explain what I know and go into more detail on the actual act of picking a lock. Let me know in the comments here, or on our Facebook page. This has the potential to be a series of articles, but I need to know there is interest in it.

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