Keys duplicated from photo: Delayed reaction

There was a report some time ago that researchers have developed a way to duplicate keys given only a photograph. When I read this story, I was reminded of an incident that occurred to a colleague of mine.

He accidentally locked his keys in his car and called a locksmith. Frustratingly, the keys were sitting right there on the driver's seat. The locksmith arrived and assessed the situation. "Well, since you already paid for me to come all the way out here, how would you like a spare key?"

"Huh? What do you mean?"

The locksmith looked at the key on the driver's seat, studied it intently for a few seconds, then returned to his truck. A short while later, he returned with a freshly-cut key, which he inserted into the door lock.

The key worked.

Comments (30)
  1. @Wow says:

    I've read a book on lockpicking (which btw is a very interesting read) and for many keys it's very easy. In fact the "cuts" in the key profiles are in a discrete set,  usually with less than 10 possible depths. This mean that you can describe a key as a profile description (how it is viewed in front — basically the key model) with a number describing the cuts (much like a telephone number). Some keys even have the number might even be printed on the key. For trained eyes (like those of an expert blacksmith) it could be trivial to identify profile and cuts from a distance and being able to reproduce them.

    Which means you should be careful not to leave the keys visible where thieves can observe them.

  2. mike says:

    Certainly older-style Yale locks and keys are conceptually straightforward (as detailed in a famous lockpicking manual —…/index.html). An experienced locksmith can probably read the bumps on an existing key pretty accurately since, as the article points out, it can be translated into a numeric code. To do that from a photo, you just need enough resolution to be able to distinguish "values" for each bump.

  3. Jon says:

    I remember reading a while ago about Diebold listing spare keys for their voting machines on their online store. Only authorized people could buy them, but everyone could look at the picture.

  4. Ben says:

    Once while on vacation near Mendocino, CA, I locked the keys my rented convertible in the trunk. Since this was a rental, both keys were together on a metal cable, so both ended up in the trunk. Since this is a convertible, there's no way to get into the trunk without a key. Stuck.

    Called a locksmith. They were able to look up the VIN, had a short phone call with my rental place, and then cut a key totally blind based on a code provided.

    Worked the first time. And I still have a key to a Mustang last seen in Sacramento.

  5. Chris B says:

    While such key-duplication abilities/techniques are interesting, I don't find it too concerning.  A lock and key only keep out the most casual of intruders anyway.

  6. 640k says:

    And that's why putting keys on the table is bad luck.

  7. Gabe says:

    Several years ago a TV news crew was filming in a prison, and some footage that included keys made it on the air. They ended up having to replace 11,000 locks and 3,200 keys, according to…/broadcasting.youthjustice

    It seems unlikely that somebody would be able to manufacture a working jail key from just seeing it, but a quick search turned up news stories of prisoners fabricating their own working keys from having just seen them in passing. I saw stories that mentioned ones made of metal, one made of wood, and one from plastic cutlery!

  8. James Curran says:

    Well, this is a weird coincidence…. Just this morning, I tweeted a photo of my keys (my house key isn't visible)

  9. Dan Neely says:

    @James Curran

    Your front door might be safe; but I suspect changing the lock in it would have been easier than that of whatever antique your old school brass key is for…

  10. Jonathan Wilson says:

    I remember a story where someone got a look at the key used by the dutch police for their special handcuffs and was able to create a replica with a 3D printer.

  11. TC says:

    I'm surprised that this could be done by sight. From what I can tell, a yale style lock has 4-7 pins. Each pin has up to 10 possible (legal) depths. The increment between each depth is only about 0.02". So you have to visually estimate the depth, of each pin seperately, to an accuracy of 0.02". I just can't see that happening. It's surely more likely that the locksmith, inmate etc. just read a numeric code from the side of the key, and used a locksmith manual to look up the pin depths from that.

  12. Ray Trent says:

    Am I the only one amused by the idea in Wow's comment that you should be worried about not leaving out your keys, because a trained locksmith might see them and copy the key? Uhhh… he or she is a *trained locksmith*. Your paltry lock is not very effective.

  13. mastmaker says:

    Being an extremely absent-minded guy, I keep (metal not plastic) copies of keys to both my cars in my pocket. I must have used them a dozen times in the last few years….grateful to the idea each and every time. It helps that I drive lower end American cars…which need neither expensive (laser-cut) nor 'big and heavy' keys.

  14. Rick C says:

    While standard locks do have something like 10 depths for each pin, the way the keys are made means that any given pin's depth won't be that far from the next pin's depth.  Think about it:  you don't see keys with wild angles between pin rest sites.

  15. TC says:

    @Rick: If any given pin's depth was "not that far from the next pin's depth", that would mean that the hills and valleys were on a fairly constant line (horizontal, or tilted). That's observably not the case, with any of my yale style keys …

  16. Dan Neely says:

    @mastmaker  I buy wallets with built in key holders for the same reason.

  17. This reminds me of when one of my friends locked his keys inside his car, and just out of a mix of desperation and humor, I tried my own key in his car door and it worked, despite the fact that my key and his were not identical.  Maybe some car door locks are lot looser than we think.

  18. SB says:

    I've also heard in the past that the auto manufacturers use a very small set of keys. My friend and I walked up to his car once, he unlocked the door, we get in and he says, "Where are my cassettes?" And I say, "Why is there a pom-pom here?" It wasn't his car after all.

  19. key but no clue says:

    @SB. Yes, I did that with a Volkswagen Rabbit about 1975. As I remember it, the key worked in the door but not the ignition–or perhaps, once seated in the car I noticed that it wasn't the right one.

  20. steveg says:

    @SB, @Key but no clue: I've done the same thing. Identical cars parked next to each other.

    On topic, I locked my keys in the car once, and the roadside assistance guy turned up and broke into my 1976 Cortina in less than 2 seconds with a metal ruler. I miss that car. Someone had removed the vinyl roof bit and painted it with house paint that almost matched the rest of the car. I also purchased it via barter, one lawnmower  for one car.

  21. key but new clue says:

    @steveg: Yes, the cars of the 1970s were not especially secure. I drove a Gran Torino two-door that was loose enough in its joints that I could work a screwdriver through the gaskets and pop the lock. I impressed with your bartering skills, by the way.

  22. Jon says:

    This security problem is solved in several ways. First, most cars are required to have immobilizers now and everybody uses the remotes. Chrysler thought about this and realized that they could eliminate the key cylinder on all but one door. The remote has this square protrusion which is used to activate the immobilizer-only ignition switch. There is a hidden flimsy metal key in the remote, for when your battery is dead.

    The second solution to the problem is not to have one key code for a car, but to have multiple codes and have the car electronically match them, as in the remote/immobilizer case. This solves the problem of having the key code sit in a database that can be accessed by anybody working at a dealer.

  23. TC says:

    Some years ago my car's immobilizer key stopped working on the friday afternoon before a long week-end. I rang the dealer and made a fuss. An hour later, a mysterious person rang me back, asked some ID questions, then said: "Just put your key in the steering lock and then do X and Y". X and Y were simple operations using the key – much like turning the dial to open a tumbler safe. Voila! Car started. I concluded that most (all?) cars of that time, had a simple mechanical override for the immobilizer! I never got it fixed, I just continued using the override.

  24. TC says:

    Um, re. "mechanical override": the override was clearly electrical – not mechanical – but it was activated mechanically (by actions X and Y).

  25. ChristW says:

    About 2 months ago, in Belgium, someone from the Ministry of Transportation was on TV outlining that the speed cameras in Belgium all have a cabin next to them (supplying power) with an 'On/Off' switch inside them. He waved around (on camera) some key stating that 'for about 10 euros you could make a key and switch off all the speed cameras in Belgium'. He was dumb enough to shake around an actual key, and a key has been made to open those cabins…

  26. Ultimately, keys tend to be "good enough" impediments to casual entry, rather than impenetrable defenses. No doubt the guy three doors from me (who happens to be a locksmith) could get in through my front door in a few minutes with some clever tools – but then, in an emergency, the doctor three doors the other way could get in using brute force and some solid footwear.

    I recall one episode of CSI:Miami where a repo guy was using much this method to retrieve boats. Given the serial number, he could just look up which key to cut, then make one on the spot in a couple of minutes. I seem to recall he ended up getting shot though… I would suspect in this case, the locksmith will have known most of the "variable" parameters just from the model: "ah, the 2009 model – that'll be a type C key, from the 1234 range" – so even if he couldn't see the key number, just seeing the end of the key might be enough to fill in the last digits by eye. Also, remember that unlike most computer passwords, an exact match isn't always required. Maybe the original key was 1234567 – but 1234500 would work just as well.

    My grandfather, some years ago, had the same experience as SB: wondering why his car had been tidied up while he was in the shop, then discovering he was actually in someone else's very similar car with the same key. I'd like to think that has changed now – but when was the last time you tried your car key in someone else's car to know? On the other hand, when my mother needed a second key to her Volvo recently, the local dealer couldn't obtain one at all: the car itself had to be taken, along with the existing key, to the main dealer for the area to perform some electronic ritual to introduce the old key, new key and the car to each other so they'd all play nicely together.

    For a few years, I was in the habit of getting into my office using a coffee-stirrer, rather than the official key I'd been issued. I had 3 or 4 keys which appeared identical apart from the color of plastic tag, making retrieving the right one a bit of a pain, but the coffee-stirrer opened the latch more easily anyway.

    Crossing over with computing, just before Christmas I had to log in to a co-worker's account while he was away. (We've just moved to Microsoft's Office 365; we needed to extract all the older messages with the old e-mail software from a password-protected local archive on his PC and move it to the server so the automatic migration would catch it all.) With the right tools, recovering his password was quick enough that even I was surprised.

  27. Eric Hamilton says:

    Is there a chance that the locksmith made a "master key". Has anyone checked to see if the new key will access a different car?

  28. No One says:

    @Eric Hamilton: Car locks aren't designed to support a "master key".  They are, excepting luxury and super cars, very simple, key-wise, with respect to entry.

    However, many old cars have sticky pins in the locks from being outside in the weather all the time and thus can be opened with anything that'll actually fit into and turn the lock.

  29. Gabe says:

    Thinking back to the olden days, American cars used to come with two keys — one for the door locks and one for the ignition. Maybe the idea was that they only had 1,000 different keys, but by using different ones for the locks and ignition, there was only a 1 in 1,000,000 chance that you'd be able to both unlock and start a car that wasn't yours.

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