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Locksport: A Fight Club for Lock Picking

by Rachel Swaby
How a spirited and inclusive community emerged from competitive lock picking.

After exchanging some pleasantries, retrieving an iced tea from the cashier, and settling in, Eric Michaud clicks a standard issue handcuff around my left wrist. We’re sitting at a two-top upstairs in a small café, and the table before us is blanketed with metal. Pin-tumbler locks, like key in knob cylinders, pad locks, Mortise locks as well as several lock picking sets (some of which he’s testing and some of which he owns) have been taken from a Michaud’s black backpack and placed before us. My hand, heavy with metal and social baggage, rests there as well.

I have no idea what our neighbors think of this display because I’m too distracted by the gasp-laughter escaping from my mouth. At least something is escaping; my hand is not.

Although I didn’t anticipate this exact predicament, I did anticipate that we’d be toying around with locks. I was looking forward to it, even. Eric Michaud is many things—a physical security expert, a hacker-space founder, a runner—but today he’s here to talk to me about using the pick in place of the key. As the co-founder of the US branch of The Open Organisation of Lockpickers (TOOOL), Michaud’s not only an expert lock picker, but he was also on the front lines as a small collection of enthusiasts that turned their picking passion into a full blown movement.

Naturally, it’s embarrassing in such company and to be failing the first lesson.

The First Rule of Lock Picking: Never pick or manipulate any lock that does not belong to you, without explicit permission.

It’s a rocky start, but Michaud knows all about those. When he decided to learn how to pick locks a decade ago, he spent an entire year failing. No matter what he tried, his pick and torque tool couldn’t emulate a key. In 2004, Michaud attended the Hackers of Planet Earth conference and there his luck changed. He learned how to solve the puzzle from Barry Wels, the Holland-based founder of the original TOOOL organization. After a tutorial in lock picking basics (plus a discussion of what Michaud was doing wrong): “Poof! Open.” After “recovering from the high,” Michaud immediately asked how he could start his own lock picking organization. He was hooked on the idea of locksport.

Wels laid out some general guidelines over the course of the conference. His advice: Keep the meetings quiet, and only recruit a core group of capable and ethical enthusiasts—“ones that aren’t going to do anything silly and cause problems,” Michaud explains.

Master Lock combination single-dial padlock, with three parallel wheels (cams) that rotate to allow a latch to fall into an aligned row of notches.

A decade ago, there was a legitimate concern that TOOOL could either be misinterpreted by the public or exploited by criminals. After all, it takes a little explaining to convey why one would take pleasure in opening a lock just to open it.

So for two years, Michaud and his co-founder (who wishes to remain anonymous) conducted meetups in stealth, gathering in a Princeton University classroom with just a few others to open locks, establish policies, and prepare to unveil the organization publicly.

At a hacker conference in 2006, TOOOL invited participants to join the movement.

For many, TOOOL ignited their interest in lock picking. The organization would book space at conferences and fairs, offering tutorials on how to beat the pin-tumbler. Locksport competitions—the first of which took place in Germany in 1996—also gained visibility over time as more and more people began participating in the sport’s zany challenges.

Master Lock No. 3 pin tumbler lock. A key pushes up driver and key pins to allow a cylindrical plug to rotate.

Locksport celebrates speed challenges, of course, but there are also more obstacle-oriented activities available. In the ‘Gringo Warrior’ game, contestants attempt to break free from a fictional Mexican jail by picking their way through an increasingly difficult selection of locks. The first step, unsurprisingly, is handcuffs. Contestants gain points for speed, level of difficulty, and their escape’s creative flair.

Key-in Knob cylinder, used in doors. Specifically a Mortise cylinder, with a tail piece (cam) to move the latch at its end.

TOOOL also helped bring together people who were already interested in lock picking, like the Bay Area’s Christina Palmer, but who lacked a community. Palmer is 52 now, but she started picking locks in 1975 as a teenager. “One day out of the blue, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to pick locks.’ I went to the public library and looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. They had nothing at all about lock picking, but they did have this beautiful exploded view of a Yale pin-tumbler lock mechanism. It was instantly obvious how to pick.” At the time, lock-picking sets were hard to find and there was no Amazon to deliver her the tools. It was no matter; Palmer had success fashioning her own.

Picking a lock requires two instruments: a pick to manipulate the lock’s pins and a torque tool to spin the plug. For torque, Palmer bent the end of a screwdriver, which worked nicely. But the pick required a little trial and error. Although a paperclip was the right shape, she found it yielded far too easily under the pins’ pressure. Next she tried a hairpin, which she sharpened to fit into the keyway. It worked. Palmer had not only taught herself to pick a lock, but she’d developed the tools to do it, too.

American Lock safety lockout rectangular padlock. Equipped with security pins to resist lock picking and bumping. The color is used as a safety indicator, not for security.

Over time, Palmer collected locks and opened them with friends, but in general, it was a private pursuit. “I just assumed I was too eccentric,” she explained over the phone. But a couple of years ago she started attending TOOOL meetings, and there she found peers—and a lot of them. She remains an active participant, going to monthly events for the guest lectures, to trade locks with peers, ask advice, and to work on honing various lock picking techniques. There’s typically lunch and drinking, too.

Part of locksport’s appeal is that is scales well. Newbies can practice on $6 pin-tumbler locks, while the experienced crack locks with extra levels of difficulty baked in. And picking is just one way to approach the puzzle. Some focus on the art of picking. Others, like Palmer, have a specific interest lies in the way the tools themselves are made. (Palmer works on pick designs for TOOOL) And then there are ways to get around a lock that don’t require a pick at all.

Jos Weyers holds the world record for speed in a lock-opening technique called impressioning. By sticking a blank key in a pin-tumbler cylinder lock and jiggling it around a bit, Weyers can tell—without any prior knowledge of the lock—where the blank should be filed down, thanks marks or impressions left on the key by the lock’s insides.

BiLock high-security lock designed to be pick resistant and bump proof.

“I probably destroyed 700 key blanks learning how to impression,” said Weyers, who lives in the Netherlands, over Skype. But the practice (and investment) paid off in 2009 when Weyers filed a blank into a lock-opening key in just 87 seconds. The win was huge news. His time shaved nearly three minutes off the previous world record. Since then, he’s been able to clock in at under a minute.

The community has also proven to be an effective force in upping our physical security. Lock picking tends to expose a device’s vulnerabilities, and TOOOL believes that having those discussions openly—understanding how locks work and how they can be compromised—will only make us safer. After a group of cyclists posted a video exposing how a Kryptonite lock could be opened with a Bic pen in 2004, the locksport community spread the word. Kryptonite issued a recall. The next year, Barry Wels published a white paper explaining how pin-tumbler locks were vulnerable to a no skill, quick-open tool called a bump key. (Bumping is not the same as picking.) The paper prompted the development of a wave of “bump-proof” locks.

One thing that took a while to expose: what exactly I had to blame (besides myself, of course) for my handcuff failure in the café. Michaud gets down to the bottom of it. In a calm, reassuring tone, he explains that I’m pressing my wrist against the table with such force that it’s blocking the ratchet arm from performing click forward motion that lets my pick break in and my wrist break out. Aha! A tiny puzzle solved and a belated victory.

Rachel Swaby is a New York-based writer. She has previously written about the lost art of patent drawings.