This story begins back in 2003 when a new system of baggage locks was introduced in the United States. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has always faced the tricky task of finding the right balance between airline security and the personal privacy of passengers. So as a solution a system of “TSA-approved” locks were created which could be opened by security inspectors in an airport using master keys. TSA convinced Americans that the system is completely safe.
How hackers found a hole in security system
In 2015, two hackers nicknamed Nite 0wl and Johnny Xmas found a year-old article in The Washington Post about the inner workings of the TSA. Believe it or not, the newspaper published a photo of real master keys close enough to see their construction. What happened next comes as no surprise, as the hackers were able to easily digitalize those pictures and 3D print them. They were also so benevolent that they posted a free file on the internet for anyone to make the same master keys.
The next peak in this story occurs on July 23rd in 2016, when our characters teamed up with a third hacker, DarkSim905, and revealed to the public their new 3D printed TSA master keys – now for locks, produced by Safe Skies company.
Unfortunately for the team of hackers, the photos of the keys were not readily available online this time, so Nite 0wl bought quite a few Safe Skies' locks from as many different places as he could find. After this, he began to study and experiment with the keys that came with the locks, 3D printing different prototypes of the master keys. Finally, he worked out the master keys’ cuts and designed a model of them. What's interesting is that without the help of a 3D printer, this process would have taken a much longer.
Beat the enemy with his own weapon
Despite the fact that these master keys left airline passengers vulnerable and damaged the reputation of the TSA, the hackers’ actions presented an opportunity to show itself to a startup from Switzerland, UrbanAlps. The problem is that with 3D scanning, modeling, and printing technologies spreading worldwide and becoming more accessible and cheap, it becomes too easy to copy any keys and open every lock – from baggage to homes.
So UrbanAlps decided to beat the enemy with its own weapon. They released a so-called “Stealth Key” - made of stainless steel via 3D metal printing technology. Unlike the ordinary keys, the Stealth Key has the majority of its mechanisms hidden inside that prevents people from being able to scan and copy them. UrbanAlps also say that every key has a unique coding.
The company projects it will sell 1000 Stealth Keys in 2017, with each package (lock and two keys) fetching just over a $1000. You wouldn't want to lose a key, especially because you won't be able to duplicate it yourself.
Although UrbanAlps claims that their new key is totally secure, Nite 0wl reacted immediately to the innovation with skepticism. In his Tweet, the hacker asks which of his colleagues wants to be the first to prove UrbanAlps wrong. He also says:
“A bit saddened they pirated Jos Weyers' and not any of my HOPE panels.”
To be honest, we can say that lock pickers gave a start to the improvement of lock mechanisms and the whole security system. But it’s definitely not the end, and both sides will continue testing each other.
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