For those about to lock

By IAN SANDS  |  August 5, 2009

When I caught up with Towne last week, he was readying himself for DEFCON 2009 (held this past weekend at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Vegas). He didn't sound overly confident about his chances, probably because of a decision he made last October to drop "out of the community" because "personal, work, and family life took over."

According to the locksporter, he's now "incredibly excited" to be back.

"I'm rusty, too, but I've been practicing."


FIXING THE BUMPS

Not surprisingly, members of the law-enforcement community, as well as certain lock manufacturers, have expressed reservations with locksport. The common concern is that locksporters endanger the public by disseminating information that might ultimately end up in the wrong hands. In particular, they take issue with the way information has found itself on the Web about "bumping," which is the process of using a specially made key in such a way as to defeat the pin-tumbler lock, commonly found on homes and businesses.

"We just aren't sure that a hobby that involves proselytizing expertise, enabling people to gain access to others people's property, is necessarily a good thing," says Jim Pasco, the executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police's legislative office in Washington, DC.

But then there's Anne Maestranzi, owner of Boston locksmiths the Charles W. Benton Company, who says she doesn't see the harm in the hobby. "Here's my philosophy over the years: when people go out and rob other people, they don't pick locks — they have a crowbar. They don't think twice about a lock."

The locksport community may actually even help to improve our security. In 2008, a hobbyist named Jon King discovered a way to bump a lock made by the manufacturer Medeco. Towne, who knew King, reached out to the company and together the hobbyists traveled to Virginia for a meeting with Medeco's director of research and development, Peter Field.

In the end, Towne says the company took steps to address the problem. And though some locksporters argue that the adjustments Medeco made in the wake of the discovery don't go far enough, it was a big step.

"The fact is," says Towne, "there are a ton of people out there — yeah, they're sitting on their couches — but some of them . . . discover some really amazing things."


FINGER-PICKING GOOD

The main lockpicking event at DEFCON is known as Gringo Warrior, and it's a course of challenges that begins with all of the participants in handcuffs, in a sort of role-playing game. At this past Saturday's event, the narrative held that, while vacationing in Tijuana, Mexico, the locksporter has been arrested and threatened by some crooked cops after a wild night of partying, and he must escape their clutches.

In all of the stages, competitors can choose from among a variety of difficulties, which are worth different points; in the first challenge, maximum points are awarded for an escape from cuffs clasped around the back. Towne, himself, went this route, and "was out of them in 20 seconds," he writes in an e-mail. The next challenge — breaking out of the interrogation room — is actually the equivalent of picking a typical doorknob lock. Again, one has the option of choosing from three different kinds of locks, from easy to difficult. "I was hoping to do the hard one, but after spending about 30 seconds on it, I went to the medium and had that open immediately."

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