In a break from my usual series, I thought I’d write an article explaining a little more in depth as to why our teaching lockpicking doesn’t actually risk an increased number of criminals likely to be using it as a method to break into places. I ask only that you read with an open but critical mind.
The usual defense that I commonly see lockpicking organisations give run along the lines of “We vet our members to ensure they aren’t up to no good”. Being honest, there’s no way to truly know that a given person harbours no ill will, both now and in the future (Even if some people can be trivially spotted and turned away). That’s not the real reason that teaching lockpicking isn’t an issue.
Nor is it the argument that we’re helping people be more informed about their security choices, by exposing poorly designed products. We do help people make more informed choices on that front, but this isn’t a case of those who don’t understand lockpicking being vulnerable, and those who do being able to make choices to mitigate it.
There’s another argument I often see espoused, and I personally think it’s a good one; That the bad guys already know this stuff, so all we’re doing is denying knowledge to people who won’t use the skill nefariously. This is an argument which I think has a lot of merit, but I’d like to add another one to the pile:
It’s simply the case that lockpicking is not a good method for breaking into somewhere.
At least for the crimes that people who raise this objection are referring to. Let’s look at why. Firstly, these are the advantages of lockpicking:
- It’s covert – I mentioned this in my article about raking – lockpicking won’t leave any trace which can be casually detected.
- It’s quiet – Not perfectly quiet, it does make a fair amount of noise, especially depending on your technique. That said, it’s going to be a lot quieter than knocking down a door or smashing a window.
- The tools are compact – lockpicks don’t take up much room, provided you’re not carrying a massive selection of picks. See this article for details on how to keep a lockpick set slimmed down.
And here are some disadvantages:
- Reliability – Other methods of entry aren’t normally skill based. They can either work, or not work. For example, shimming a padlock. This is only possible on certain lock designs. Ball bearing mechanisms are just not vulnerable. So either the attack will work, or it won’t. And with a little bit of experience and practice, it’s very easy to tell how long an attack like shimming will take, if it does work. On the other hand, sometimes even expert lockpickers are confounded by locking mechanisms which they should be able to open trivially (my favorite example of this). This means that it’s difficult to rely on compared to other methods.
- Repeatability – If there are multiple doors in a building to get through, each one will pick differently (even if they all take the same key), because the binding order depends on the tolerances of the parts inside, so they’re all effectively like picking multiple different locks.
- Suspicious – Lockpicking doesn’t look like a normal interaction with a door, and given that it’s hard to have the tools ready in hand, and get through the door almost as fast as someone with a working key, this is a big disadvantage. You’ve got a high chance of being in a lot of trouble if someone sees you attempting to pick a lock.
- All or Nothing – This ties in with the point above. If a lockpicking attempt is interrupted, then the lockpicker will have to release tension, and they’ll lose any progress. They might be able to remember the order that they needed to move which specific pins that they’d so far discovered, but the actual physical process would have to start again from square 1.
So, now that we’ve looked at a few of the advantages and disadvantages, maybe it’s a little easier to see why lockpicking isn’t a threat to most people or organisations. Although it is covert and quiet, neither of these benefit most criminal break-ins. Being covert is pointless, because in cases where the criminal is taking something, it’ll be obvious that a break-in occurred. Neither of these is a benefit if there’s an alarm system installed either, unless the criminal also knows how to bypass that.
On the other hand, all of the disadvantages are relevant. So, all in all, lockpicking isn’t a good method of attack in the overwhelming majority of circumstances. To help round this out, I’ll list some cases where lockpicking genuinely can be the best option:
- Exfiltrating Data – In a case like this, the aim would be to get to secured documents to photograph, read or copy them. If those were battle plans, for example in a military setting, then the benefit of accessing them is severely diminished if the side whose documents were accessed knows that they were accessed. Therefore, covert methods are necessary.
- Opening a Safe or Vault – in some cases, safes or vaults cannot be re-secured to the same level of security after a destructive attack was used to gain access. Therefore picking the lock doesn’t risk permanently lowering the value or utility of the vault. Apart from that, lockpicking might be the easiest way in, depending on how well-designed the safe is, and the lock in question.
- Planting Bugs – Organisations that are tasked with gathering data on suspected terrorists or organised criminals and surveilling them can also make use of lockpicking techniques to get their aims completed.
- Locked Out – And of course, if you’ve left your keys inside your home, and locked yourself out, then there’s no reason a competent locksmith should need to drill your lock. (Unless you’re truly using something very high security)
This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. But ultimately, this is why teaching lockpicking isn’t a concern. The kind of cases where it’s useful aren’t the kind of cases people normally need to worry about. In the cases where it is a concern, relevant measures should be taken by organisations to protect their assets.
As far as lockpicking and crime is concerned, the only application I’m really aware of is skimming vending machines and parking meters. This involves picking the vending machine or parking meter open after a busy day, and taking a cut from the day’s profits. This is also why these locks are far superior in pick resistance to the average house door, and beyond the scope of the average hobbyist lockpicker – even after substantial practice and experience.
Thanks for reading, and hopefully this gave a slightly more in-depth reason as to why lockpicking is hardly used at all in crimes, at least in the UK. And, by extension, why teaching it doesn’t harm our security.