Hackers turn to lock picking for sport

A set of antique lock picks
Image caption Lock picking has a long history amongst hackers

Police handcuffs can't restrain them. High security locks can't keep them out. Very little can thwart the lock picking and safe cracking skills of an elite group of Dutch hackers known as Toool.

But far from being some shadowy criminal fraternity, The Open Organisation of Lock pickers (Toool) is nothing more sinister than a sports club that meets in a pub once a week.

There is a long tradition of lock-picking among computer experts and hackers, said Jos Weyers, a senior member of the club.

"Computer hackers like getting into areas of a computer that they are not supposed to, and lock-picking is really just analogue hacking - working out how a device works and opening it in a way that you are not meant to.

"A closed lock is a challenge - it's a red rag to a hacker."

Suspicious minds

Weyers is at pains to point out that Toool only promotes lock-picking as a sport and not as a criminal activity.

Occasionally "suspicious" people do turn up at the club's open nights hoping to learn how to gain entry to places that they should not, he said, but they are usually put off after about half an hour when they discover that lock picking is far from easy.

"Learning to pick a lock takes a lot of time and practice, and it's much quicker and easier for a burglar to force their way in with a crowbar," said Mr Weyers.

The friendly, animated forty-something Dutchman who works in IT security says most other lock-pickers - or "door hardware" enthusiasts are also middle-aged men.

"Most Toool members are involved in IT security, but we also have people ranging from aircraft mechanics to lawyers. And there are even a few women," he added.

As a sport, lock-picking is relatively inexpensive to take up.

That's because all a person needs to get going is a set of lock picks and a lock to start practising on.

Armchair sport

Despite the name, door hardware sportsmen never tackle locks while they are still fitted to doors, preferring to pick them on their laps or on a table, said Mr Weyers.

"That way it's much more comfortable.

Image caption Many hackers like to relax by picking locks

"You can sit down and practice your lock-picking while you watch TV, for example."

No sport is complete without a competitive element, so at Toool meetings, members pick locks against the clock.

The club has a set of 26 competition locks, and members can attempt any of them as many times as they like, with the fastest times for each lock recorded on a leader board.

For elite door hardware sportsmen there's also the annual Dutch Open championships where top lock pickers from the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, France and even countries as far-flung as Australia and the USA compete to open a particular lock in the fastest time.

The tables at Toool's stall at the recent Hack in the Box hacker convention in Amsterdam were strewn with locks of all shapes and sizes, including ones that have been cut open so that learners can see the internal workings.

Picking a lock like this is relatively easy as the lock-picker can see what his pick is doing inside the lock, rather than having to rely on the sense of touch.

After just a few moments of tutoring and getting used to the feeling of using a pick to move pins inside the lock, most people are able to pick what would be regarded as a low security "beginner's" lock in five or ten minutes.

Speed test

Of course there is more than one way to open a lock.

One Toool member demonstrated the use of a thin metal spike with irregular edges that can be inserted into a lock and moved in and out ten or so times until the lock's internals are jiggled into the right position for the lock to open.

Image caption Police handcuffs are no match for Toool lock pickers

The technique doesn't work on all locks, but when it does it requires little skill.

For that reason many door sportsmen don't bother with such tools, preferring the challenge of successfully picking one open.

To open a cheap padlock, another Toool member produced another set of tools - basically thin curved sheets of metal that are wrapped around the hasp of a padlock. When these are pushed down into the body of the padlock and rotated it pops open without causing any damage.

In fact it's not just cheap locks that are insecure. Another Toool member demonstrated how police handcuffs could be opened in seconds using a thin strip of metal.

But the biggest thrill in door hardware sports comes from picking a lock, and doing so in a record time.

"Some locks I can pick in five or six seconds, and one I can actually pick in less than a second," says Weyers. "If you think about it, it can be quicker for me to pick a lock that to pull out a key and unlock it normally."

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