Perfect Security

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
A man walks down a dark alley. He’s dressed all in black: black beanie hat, black gloves. He approaches a door, drops to one knee, and produces from his pocket, a small metal tool. He inserts the tool into the keyhole. He deftly slides the tool around inside the keyhole, until he’s in. Security has been breached. But only in the movies, because prospective lock pickers take note, you generally can’t do that with just a pick or hairpin or paperclip. There are two tools you need to pick a lock, and one of them is usually left out.

Leigh Honeywell:
When you see people picking locks in movies, this is the part they always forget.

Roman Mars:
The tension wrench.

Leigh Honeywell:
This is a tension wrench. It’s an L-shaped piece of metal with a little twist in it.

Roman Mars:
An L-shaped piece of metal that with one hand you insert at the bottom of the keyhole, while the other hand uses the pick to work the pins in the lock.

Leigh Honeywell:
And hold the lock with a little bit of rotational tension.

Roman Mars:
That, by the way is Leigh Honeywell, showing our producer Sam Greenspan how to pick a lock.

Sam Greenspan:
Leigh is a digital security expert and amateur lock picking instructor.

Leigh Honeywell:
I taught a bunch of people how to pick locks at a feminist science fiction convention one year.

Sam Greenspan:
I met Leigh at her office in San Francisco. We sat in a conference room among piles of tension wrenches and lock picks, and special practice locks built for the picking.

Leigh Honeywell:
You have to push each pin up far enough, that you can’t see that bottom part. See, you can see the bottom part there. There’s two pieces of the pin; you have to get the first …

Roman Mars:
So when you pick a lock, you’re using the pick and tension wrench to do the work of the key. You need them both.

Sam Greenspan:
Okay, so I’m putting the pick into the keyhole. Oh, is that it? Oh, I did it. Yay!

Leigh Honeywell:
Yay!

Sam Greenspan:
The pursuit of lock picking is as old as the lock, which is itself as old as civilization. But in the entire history of the world, there is only one brief moment, about 70 years, where you could put something under lock and key: a chest, a safe, your home, and have complete, unwavering certainty that no intruder could get to it.

Roman Mars:
A feeling that security experts call perfect security.

Sam Greenspan:
And since we lost perfect security in the 1850s, it has remained elusive. Despite tremendous leaps forward in security technology, we have never been able to get perfect security back.

Roman Mars:
Locks go back at least as far as Ancient Egypt.

Schuyler Towne:
But in March I’m dropping a big paper theorizing that the Mesopotamians were actually the creators of the original lock, and that the Egyptians then learned it from them.

Sam Greenspan:
This is Schuyler Towne.

Schuyler Towne:
I am Schuyler Towne, and I am a security anthropologist, research scholar with the Ronin Institute, but generally just an independent academic of all things related to locks.

Sam Greenspan:
From the Middle Ages on, for hundreds of years, locks were not very good. If you were poor, you could have a terrible lock, and if you had some money, you could have a terrible lock with some added features that might at best confuse a trespasser.

Schuyler Towne:
There were chests with false keyholes, there were padlocks even with false keyholes.

Sam Greenspan:
False keyholes, which they thought would draw the thief away from the true keyhole. Some locks had false keyholes that even had lock-like components affixed to them, so it felt like they were attached to the latching mechanism, but actually weren’t.

Schuyler Towne:
Seriously, the best you could do was try to confuse an intruder into picking a fake lock.

Sam Greenspan:
But as soon as the real keyhole was known, the security was pretty much nil.

Schuyler Towne:
There was no perfect security. There was no lock that could keep everyone out.

Sam Greenspan:
And then in the 1770s, an English guy named Joseph Bramah entered the locksmithing scene.

Schuyler Towne:
And this is like a wizard from the future had come back in time and invented the most amazing lock in the world.

Roman Mars:
If the name Joseph Bramah sounds familiar to you, fellow engineering history nerds, this is the same Joseph Bramah who invented the flush toilet, and the first water-pumping fire engine, and…

Schuyler Towne:
A pneumatic tree-murdering machine. It would literally just rip a full-grown tree out of the ground by its roots. That one wasn’t as popular, but it was pretty cool.

Sam Greenspan:
And so Joseph Bramah, inventor, time wizard, tree murderer, he was really interested in locks. He made something called, aptly, the Bramah safety lock.

Schuyler Towne:
Bramah disconnected the key from the bolt, so what the key is doing, is it’s rotating an inner chamber of this lock.

Sam Greenspan:
Take my word for it, explaining how this thing works does not make for compelling radio. But the main thing about this lock is that it added levels of complexity in between the key and the bolt. It’s like a whole Rube Goldberg scenario plays out inside the lock. The key touches one thing, which touches another thing, and triggers this other thing … And Bramah was so confident in his lock, that he actually published a pamphlet detailing exactly how it worked.

Roman Mars:
No more hiding the keyhole or shrouding the lock’s operation in secrecy.

Sam Greenspan:
Bramah revealed everything about the lock, and still claimed that it could not be opened without the key. And he also had another idea that would revolutionize locksmithing.

Schuyler Towne:
He also contributes the idea of turning this whole thing into a contest.

Roman Mars:
Showmanship.

Schuyler Towne:
As soon as he has a padlock version of this lock that he is very confident in, he puts it in the window of his store in Piccadilly.

Sam Greenspan:
And he paints on it a message, a challenge in gold lettering. Quote: “The artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock, shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced.”

Roman Mars:
200 guineas in 1777 is something north of £20,000 today.

Schuyler Towne:
And people try. People actually take a real honest shot at this.

Sam Greenspan:
But no one, not even with their own tools, could hack it.

Schuyler Towne:
And it remained in that window for 70 plus years, challenging all comers, and everybody failed to open it.

Sam Greenspan:
Bramah’s new unbeatable lock and the hoopla surrounding it, caught the attention of the British Crown. And they wanted to up the game. They wanted a lock that wouldn’t just be unbreakable, but would also alert the owner if someone tried to get into it.

Roman Mars:
The government sponsored a contest with £100 as a reward.

Schuyler Towne:
The best one at the time was Jeremiah Chubb’s detector lock. And the way that this worked is that when you lifted one of the tumblers up too high, it would actually trip a latching mechanism that would hold that tumbler up in the air too high, and it wouldn’t drop back down again.

Sam Greenspan:
And when that happened, the lock would completely freeze up. Even a key wouldn’t open it.

Schuyler Towne:
Until you put a different key in, rotate it in the opposite direction, and reset all of the tumblers.

Sam Greenspan:
And so if you went to unlock a chest or a vault or your front door, and the key to your Chubb detector lock didn’t work, you would know that someone had tried to get into it, and that they had failed.

Roman Mars:
Advertisements for the detector lock ran in the Bleak House serials, which read, quote: “My name is Chubb that makes the patent locks. Look upon my works, ye burglars, and despair.”

Sam Greenspan:
And as these newer and better locks were getting invented, the public spectacle around them rose to a fever pitch.

Roman Mars:
At one point they offered a guy in prison parole if he could break the Chubb lock.

Schuyler Towne:
This guy was a housebreaker. He had opened many locks in his life. And he tried it and tried it and tried it, and literally his potential freedom was genuinely on the line, and he had to turn the thing back in and say he couldn’t do it, and he couldn’t imagine that anyone could do it. And going forward, the names Bramah and Chubb are basically interchangeable for perfect security.

Sam Greenspan:
But only until the Great Lock Controversy of 1851.

Roman Mars:
In 1851, an American named A.C. Hobbs traveled to London for the Great Exhibition, the first international exhibition of manufactured products.

Sam Greenspan:
Back in the States, Hobbs had made a name for himself as a sort of white hat security consultant. He’d go visit banks and say, “Hey, if I can break the lock on your safe, you want to buy one of mine?”

Schuyler Towne:
The banks would be like, “Yeah, sure, give it a shot.” And he was selling locks like crazy.

Sam Greenspan:
Hobbs was a natural. And naturally, on day one of the exhibition, he publicly announced that he would pick the Chubb detector lock.

Roman Mars:
The one that seizes up if you pick it incorrectly.

Sam Greenspan:
Hobbs successfully picked the Chubb detector lock in front of a crowd. But the inventor, Jeremiah Chubb, wasn’t convinced. He wanted to see Hobbs do it again, so another trial was set, this time in front of auditors and reporters.

Roman Mars:
And A.C. Hobbs opened the lock again. Take that, Chubb.

Schuyler Towne:
He actually opened the lock pretty quickly.

Sam Greenspan:
A witness wrote that it took Hobbs about 25 minutes. And the way Hobbs did it was to actually use the lock against itself. He would pick it until he tripped the detector mechanism, causing the lock to seize up. That would give Hobbs information about what was going on inside, and then he would pick the lock in the opposite direction to reset the detector. He’d go back and forth firing and resetting the detector, until the lock told him everything he needed to know about how to get it open.

Schuyler Towne:
And then he closed it again, and then he opened it again.

Roman Mars:
This time in seven minutes.

Schuyler Towne:
He had complete control over the Chubb lock. It had absolutely been opened.

Sam Greenspan:
But the Chubb detector lock was really just a warm-up. The main event was the Bramah safety lock, the one with the challenge painted on it in gold lettering, which had been sitting in Joseph Bramah’s storefront window for 70 years, unbeaten, taunting lock pickers everywhere. A.C. Hobbs threw down the gauntlet.

Schuyler Towne:
A trial was conducted against the Bramah lock. They’d give him 30 days to conduct himself against it.

Sam Greenspan:
Joseph Bramah had died by this point, and his sons were running his shop. They gave Hobbs a room above the store, and Hobbs got to work. He was allowed to set the lock up in a way that was easier to work on, and he could use all his own tools. Monitors would come check in on him periodically.

Schuyler Towne:
He winds up working on this thing for about 52 hours over the course of 14 days, and finally gets it open. And the way that he gets it open is much more like brute forcing it. He designed a method of building a key for it. It wasn’t super elegant. It couldn’t be really easily repeated against a brand new one.

Roman Mars:
And some of his methods could have been prevented with some slight alterations.

Sam Greenspan:
But still, the Bramah lock had been opened.

Schuyler Towne:
When Hobbs opened that lock, I swear to you, the world changed.

Sam Greenspan:
Overnight, the feeling of perfect security had evaporated, and we have never gotten it back. Locksmiths weren’t able to convince the public that perfect security could be restored, but they did keep inventing new locks. One such locksmith was Linus Yale, Jr. You’ve probably seen present day locks with the name Yale on them; that’s because Yale’s company was able to mass produce their locks at a scale that no one ever had. Their lock became the most common in the world.

Roman Mars:
Yale’s design, patented in 1851, the same year as the Great Lock Controversy, was called the “pin and tumbler” lock.

Schuyler Towne:
It’s the kind of lock you see everywhere.

Leigh Honeywell:
If you live in an apartment building, this is almost certainly the same style of lock as you have on your front door of your apartment building.

Sam Greenspan:
It’s the kind of lock that Leigh Honeywell taught me how to pick.

Leigh Honeywell:
This is a design that’s been really commercially successful, because it’s super cheap to make, and works pretty well.

Sam Greenspan:
The pin tumbler locks we have today are not too different from the pin tumbler locks manufactured a century ago.

Roman Mars:
And the common pin tumbler lock is nowhere near as secure as the beast that was the Bramah safety lock, which took one of the greatest minds in locksmithing more than 50 hours to defeat. With about two hours of instruction and some practice, anyone, even you, can pick a simple door lock in a few minutes. And if you’re feeling confident in your abilities, you can square off against other lock pickers.

Announcer:
Are you guys ready to open as many locks as you can?

Schuyler Towne:
Ready!

Announcer:
Ten minutes. You have all your tools? You have your wits about you. Ready, set, go! Go!

Sam Greenspan:
And that’s our man, Schuyler Towne, competing there at a match in New York City. He’s also competed in arguably the World Cup of lock sport, the Dutch Open. Competitive lock sport these days isn’t so much about whether the locks can be beaten, they’re more about how fast you can beat them. And the locks used for competitions are often a lot more complicated than your average door lock.

Schuyler Towne:
The lock on your door is so easily subverted. Just casually subverted, really, on most people’s doors.

Sam Greenspan:
With some skill and patience with a tension wrench and lockpick set, you can get into almost anyone’s house.

Roman Mars:
But you don’t even need that much; just a few seconds with a crowbar or a brick through a window will do the job nicely.

Schuyler Towne:
Our homes are incredibly porous.

Sam Greenspan:
The locks in place now at banks and other high security venues are light years beyond what they had in the 1800s, but the average consumer grade locks didn’t evolve nearly as much. It’s not that we don’t need locks, we do, we just don’t need them to be impenetrable.

Schuyler Towne:
What we’re actually trusting is not the lock. What we’re trusting is our community, we’re trusting the sort of social order. And what the lock is now, the lock is a social construct as much as it is a mechanical construct.

Sam Greenspan:
And so in a post-perfect security world, most of the locks that we interact with every day don’t inspire us to trust them, they inspire us to trust each other.

Roman Mars:
And that’s why a $15 lock from your local hardware store will probably suffice.

Comments (13)

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  1. Nerdy comment ahead, but the artist made a distinct error when drawing the Swedish flag in the “The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace” painting. :)

    1. Jakazar

      In what manner? It appears that the Swedes went through quite a few changes in the 1800’s.

  2. Did 99PI know the back story to Schuyler Towne when you interviewed him for this story? He had one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in 2010 – over $87,000 pledged against a $6,000 goal. Due to various problems and poor choices associated with the excessive demand the project spiraled out of control and led to Schuyler having a complete nervous breakdown. Even now in 2015 only a tiny fraction of the rewards for the Kickstarter have been fulfilled. Though he and others still seem to be working on it, the pace is glacial.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/schuyler/lockpicks-by-open-locksport/description

    1. There were a lot of factors that led to the year-long decline in my mental health, though the stress of my very public failures certainly contributed. And yes, some of that did actually come up when talking with Sam, as I mentioned that I was reading this amazing PHD thesis while I was in the hospital:

      Under Lock And Key:
      Securing Privacy And Property In Victorian Fiction And Culture

      http://etd.library.vanderbilt.edu/available/etd-08012007-010108/unrestricted/Under_Lock_and_Key.pdf

      Fantastic read, and very on topic to this episode.

      In general, I’ve been pretty open about both my private and public failures, and my personal struggles with mental health. I genuinely believe that openness will help me overcome them. And though it does occasionally bum me out that regardless of the context, those failings will doggedly attach themselves to all other work I do in my life, I do appreciate the opportunity to acknowledge them and encourage others who are struggling to get the help they need.

  3. Bentley Wood

    Bramah is a distant relative of mine and it was great to hear this story from my favorite podcast! He also created the first beer tap, which I sometimes use right before his more famous invention.

    Also, his pneumatic press was an important development. Especially since it kills the Terminator at the end of first movie in that series.

  4. dtmp

    Yep, I never forgot that adage when it was told to me James, “locks are for honest people.”

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