Hackers conference celebrates one of the oldest tricks in the book: Picking locks


(Photo illustration by Tetra Images/CORBIS)
July 25

Babak Javadi is discussing his obsession with lock picking — how successfully pressing each pin into place and feeling the lock cylinder release is “so pleasant,” how quickly he fell in love with this hobby — when one of his buddies walks up and interrupts.

“Do you have the cash register key?” the friend says.

Javadi, 29, makes a quick sweep of his pockets, pauses, exasperated, and says, “You have to pick it. . . . It’s really easy!”

Tucked in the corner of a massive, truly decrepit room in the Hotel Pennsylvania filled with folding tables surrounded by hackers in black shirts is the Lockpick Village at Hope X, one of the world’s largest hacker conferences. Lock picking may seem an odd addition to the conference, which celebrates cryptology and sophisticated encryption, but Javadi insists it fits perfectly: Lock picking is physical hacking.

“You have a system that says you can only get in with the right key, the right password, and you want to find another way,” he says. “It’s effectively a complex, finely made mechanical puzzle that you’re finding other ways to get around.”

On Day One of Hope X last week, the meeting rooms are crammed with hackers and wannabes slumped in seats, drinking caffeine-rich Club-Mate soda and excitedly talking about PGP keys and masking your online identity.

Onstage during the locksport panel — locksport is the pastime of defeating locking systems — Deviant Ollam (his pseudonym) toasts the Hotel Pennsylvania, which for 10 years has hosted this gathering of hackers. If they keep having a “four-star lobby and one-star rooms,” he says, “we’ll keep coming.” Ollam is a board member of the U.S. division of TOOOL, the Open Organization of Lockpickers. He and his fellow panelists have been drinking, and they want the audience to know it, so they’ve brought with them onstage cans of Bud Light and a nearly full bottle of Calumet bourbon.

Evidently well-lubricated, the locksport panelists discuss ethics and ground rules: “Do not pick locks which you do not own,” and, “Do not pick locks upon which you rely.”

Hope X is home to hackers who look at how something is “supposed” to be used and find other ways to use it — an embodiment, it seems, of “hacker.”

The weekend’s sessions run the gamut: how to gain control of an elevator; what the next wave of wearable technology looks like; technically advanced panels on cryptology, plus lock picking.

Locksport grew out of hacker culture. In the mid-1990s, a German named Steffen Wernéry came to New York for Hope X and happened on a spy shop during a walk in the city. He bought a lock-
picking kit and became enamored. In 1996, Wernéry gave a talk about lock picking at Chaos Communication Congress, an annual international hacker conference in Europe that was so well attended that afterward he and his compatriots started the world’s first locksport organization, SSDeV, to legitimize the hobby.

Since then, partly out of a sense of goodwill, locksport organizations around the world have begun sharing with manufacturers the vulnerabilities they find in locks. Unlike in digital hacking, in which a patch can be issued immediately, in physical hacking, vulnerabilities take a year or more to fix in product design.

In 2006, Javadi, then a computer engineering student at Iowa State, attended Hope X, hoping to meet lock pickers whom he viewed as “rock stars.” Out of that weekend, the first official locksport organization in the United States, TOOOL US, was born.

Last weekend, at a table in the Lockpick Village at Hope X 2014, a man in a Star Trek T-shirt talked proudly about Zen and the art of lock picking, which, incidentally, he had learned only the day before. He dutifully showed a girl sitting across the table from him how to pick a basic lock.

If watching Deviant and the locksport guys taught me anything, it’s that thinking gets in the way, so I put Star Trek T-shirt out of mind. Holding the lock firmly between my thumb and forefinger, I place the “turning tool” used to create leverage into the keyhole, grab the pick and begin slowly feeling for the pins that hold the lock’s cylinder in place.

Within a few seconds, I’ve picked it. I bounce excitedly in my chair before I realize there was only one pin; most standard locks have five or six. But the sound and the sense of satisfaction were deeply gratifying — Javadi’s obsession makes sense — and for the next couple of hours I sit, trying every lock on the table, succeeding in picking only three or four slightly harder ones.

As I concentrate on picking basic lock No. 3, a dad standing behind me says, “I don’t want to teach this one to pick just yet.” His little girl responds: “I already know how to with scissors.”

Hiatt is a freelance writer.

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