I've lost my key. Can you pass me that banana?

Lock-picking enthusiasts are cracking the 'uncrackable' in increasingly creative ways. And locksmiths aren't happy about it. Patrick White reports

You won't be kicked off a car lot for asking about horsepower or ousted from a bar for asking about booze. But apparently, you can be tossed from a locksmith shop for asking about locks.

It happened to Steve Boisvert a few months ago. He dropped by a locksmith store near his home in London, Ont., and began asking the owner about Medeco locks, the supposedly unpickable industry standard used in government and military installations. The locksmith asked him where he planned to install it.

"Oh, nowhere," Mr. Boisvert said. "I'm just playing with it as a hobby."

That's when the locksmith told Mr. Boisvert to leave. "And he wasn't exactly nice about it."

Mr. Boisvert is a member of a thousands-strong community of amateur lock-pickers whose growth and influence is raising hackles among locksmiths across North America.

Driven mainly by computer geeks who see parallels between hacking networks and picking locks, the hobby has exploded online.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin recently gave the pastime a further boost, confessing that he has been a picking enthusiast since he was a student.

Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow has also shown an interest, posting a number of picking-related items on his popular site boingboing.net.

Sites such as Lockpicking101.com hold forums where tens of thousands of pickers share techniques and triumphs. Some contest one another in open competitions. Others post tips and tricks on YouTube. Their instructions are so thorough that anyone with half an hour to waste online can learn to crack bike and laptop locks and even break into used Mazdas.

Hobbyists say they broadcast these feats to challenge lock makers to improve their designs.

Many professional locksmiths see it otherwise, arguing that hobbyists could be training thieves.

"This is a skill that can do a lot of harm," says Paul Bentley, president of the Association of Ontario Locksmiths. "That's why we kind of protect it."

Just three decades ago, the finer points of lock-picking remained shrouded in mystery. Family locksmith businesses had hoarded their secrets since the 1400s, when guilds fiercely defended the purity of the trade.

"When I started 35 years ago, the business was still very much closed to outsiders," Mr. Bentley said. "You had to be a member of the family."

That has all changed. Lockpicking101.com, which site administrator and business coach Josh Nekrep runs from his home in Winnipeg, has more than 75,000 members. In 2005, he launched Locksport International, an organization that promotes the competitive aspects of picking.

The biggest showdown takes place at Defcon, an annual computer hacker conference held in Las Vegas every August. Pickers take centre stage, vying to crack unfamiliar locks in the shortest time possible.

One of the most peculiar aspects of the hobby is each picker's choice of tools. Some buy precision tools through online retailers; others consider home tool making an art form.

"My first set of tools was a bobby pin and a hair pin," Mr. Boisvert said from his home, where he has about 120 practice locks. "Now I'll make them out of wiper blades, hacksaw blades, bike spokes, filler gauges - anything you can get at a scrapyard. One guy I know even used a banana."

This is where hobby pickers can brush up against the Criminal Code. Under federal law, anyone caught carrying a "break-in instrument" and an intent to use it could receive 10 years in jail.

The law is rarely used.

"It can be tough to distinguish between criminals and hobbyists," Mr. Bentley said.

When Mr. Nekrep holds Winnipeg Locksport gatherings in his basement, he is careful to screen out unsavoury characters.

"There have been a few people I haven't felt totally comfortable inviting into my house," he said.

Hobby groups throughout North America have cracked supposedly unbeatable locks. Mr. Nekrep, who maintains a personal collection of more than 300 locks, has demonstrated online how to open a Kensington laptop lock using Scotch tape and a Post-it note. Another Lockpicking101.com member discovered the well-publicized method of opening Kryptonite bike locks with a ball-point pen, a revelation that prompted Kryptonite to replace all of its compromised locks.

Other lock manufacturers haven't admitted their flaws so readily. Marc Tobias, a lawyer and security expert, recently shook up the lock-picking community by publishing a detailed analysis of how to crack the uncrackable: Medeco locks.

"We've figured out how to break them in as little as 30 seconds," he said. "[Medeco] won't admit it, though. They still believe in security through obscurity. But by not fixing the problems we identify, lock-makers are putting the public at risk. They have a duty to disclose vulnerabilities. If they don't, we will."

More progressive locksmiths agree with that sentiment.

"Most crooks don't waste time with locks anyway," said Thomas Fraser, head of the Institutional Locksmiths Organization of Canada. "They use a hammer."

Mr. Fraser, who works as a full-time locksmith for the Toronto District School Board, identifies with most hobbyists. "I've always treated locksmithing as a game, too. It's a puzzle. I don't want that lock to beat me."

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[via theglobeandmail]

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