MIT Students 3D Print High Security Keys

by Abdul Rehman on August 26, 2013

3D Printing KeysA never ending battle has been going on between locksmiths and lock pickers since locks and keys came into existence.

Locksmiths try to outsmart lock pickers by making complex locks and keys while lock pickers try to pick it by analyzing the lock or duplicating the key.

This battle has ended this month, as far as traditional keys are concerned, and lock pickers have emerged victorious! This is thanks to MIT students’ brilliant software that can 3D print high security keys using just pictures of those keys

Schlage’s Primus – A Lock Picker’s Nightmare

When it comes to making high security keys, no organization can quite match Schlage’s reputation. Founded in 1920, Schlage’s locks and keys are considered nearly invincible. Schlage’s keys, especially those of the Primus range, use a unique method that provides an extra layer of security as compared to traditional keys.

In addition to the six pins that are found in most keys, Primus range employs a side tumbler with 5 pins which projects from the side of the key, making Primus locks among the most secure locks and almost impossible to pick by traditional methods. The company’s patent describes Primus lock and key in the following words:

“The invention claimed is…a key for use in a lock and key system including a lock of the kind comprising: (1) having a cylindrical bore (2) a cylindrical key plug being rotatably journalled in said cylindrical bore (3) said key plug having a longitudinal key slot and, (4) at a side of said key slot, at least two side locking tumblers in a row cooperating with a side locking means”

Moreover, Schlage has Banned Duplication of its Keys, further discouraging efforts to undermine this high security key. So, it came as a huge shock when two MIT students announced this month, that they had cracked the high security Primus key using nothing but some software and a 3D printing website!

MIT Students’ 3D Method: Another Dimension to Lock Picking

In the spot light at this year’s Def Con hacker conference, rather than some fancy way to hack computers or websites, was the death of high security keys by using software invented by David Lawrence and Eric Van Albert, students at MIT. In an interview with Forbes, Van Albert says:

“In the past if you wanted a Primus key, you had to go through Schlage. Now you just need the information contained in the key, and somewhere to 3D-print it”

Often Imitated Never DuplicatedTo demonstrate the effectiveness of their method, they showed nylon and titanium copies of a Primus key. To create the copies, they first went through the details of all the patents and manufacturing information available for the Primus key. After that, they designed some software that could convert a 2D picture of a key (for example, in a photograph) to a 3D model.

Finally, they sent the 3D model of the Primus key to two 3D printing websites: i.materialise and Shapeways and were able to get perfect copies of Primus keys in 100-150 dollars. Of course, i.materialise didn’t see it as a revolution but as a Misuse of its Services and wrote the following:

“We were disappointed to see that our services were used by the students to make an unauthorized copy of a Schlage Primus key”

Regardless of what i.materialise might think, this is a huge blow to the supposed invincibility of Primus key and all high security keys when one can simply use the MIT students’ software to create a 3D design of the key. Then, by using a 3D printer or a 3D printing website, he can simply print out the design. As David Lawrence rightly puts it:

“All you need is a friend that works there, or to take a picture of their key, or even a picture of the key hanging off their belt.”

Schlage has remained surprisingly quiet on all this. But it is a matter of time, before they are forced to acknowledge that their most prestigious lock Primus has been compromised.

Future Implications: New Age, New Methods

“So, that’s it?” you may ask. “My apartment, my job, my company? All of them will be unsafe now?” The answer to this is complicated. While it is true that the software created by MIT students does offer a very easy way to duplicate keys, the original key or its information is still needed.

Also, newer security methods such as electronic locks are still impervious to this method. The real purpose of this invention was, perhaps, to expose the weakness of traditional security methods. Lawrence says:

“Our message is that you can do this for any high-security key…. It didn’t take that much work.”

The implications of this software are numerous and are discussed below:

  • For the lock pickers: Whatever the MIT students had in their minds when they created the software, it is a fact that most of today’s locks are traditional. Electronic locks are just beginning to be used at some places. This makes most places vulnerable. Lock pickers all around the world will surely latch onto this opportunity and in the near future we might see security of several places, previously considered flawless, compromised. Banks may be broken into, prisoners may escape and apartments may be looted. Furthermore, lock pickers may devise newer methods of obtaining information about keys and locks, enabling them to duplicate keys without even needing a picture.
  • For the locksmiths: For lock manufacturers, such as Schlage, the message is clear: In the age of 3D printing, obsolete methods, such as traditional locks and keys, are simply not going to work! Electronic security systems offer more hope as they can’t be cracked by this method. In addition, whatever locksmiths want to do, they will have to do it quickly since the lock pickers may not wait for them to upgrade their systems. To remain safe, government, companies and citizens will increasingly rely on more advanced security methods such as electronic systems, as a common lock and key might soon prove to be little more than an open door.

Conclusion – A Lost Battle but an Ongoing War

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and the need for improving security methods has been made crystal clear by the MIT students. See related posts about The Liberator 3D Printed Firearm and 3D Printing for Criminal Gain.

Although, lock pickers seem to have won this battle of traditional locks; the war is far from lost for the locksmiths. Lock manufacturers throughout the world must consider it a direct challenge to public security and devise new and innovative methods that are impervious to any sort of picking, so that ordinary citizens like you and me can sleep, go to work and put our money in banks, with the surety that the locks we put so much trust in, will indeed protect us from all kinds of danger.

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