Locks as Social Contract

We were fortunate enough to lunch with Schuyler Towne today. Lorrie closes the blast door between our two buildings, which sets the appropriate tone for a talk on lockpicking.


Schuyler Towne is obsessed with locks. He got his start as a competitive picker, winning the American Open and competing internationally as well. At an early point in his lock collecting he came across an old “Yale & Towne” padlock. This potential familial connection drove his interest further and he spent the next several years of his life trying to understand everything he could about locks. From how they work and why they fail, to the stories of who invented them and when and where they came into existence.

Schuyler was a competitive lockpicker, winning American Opens and beating tall German master lockpickers head-to-head. He eventually realized that even more than lock-picking, he loved locks themselves. People assume that lockpickers view locks as things to be defeated, but Schuyler sees locks as social contracts, not just physical devices. He’s currently writing a book for O’Reilly Publishing, which started as a guide, but has quickly become a social almanac.

Schuyler’s here to run his thoughts on societal use of locks by people studying other topics. “Excuse me if I exploit all of your genius to make myself look better in the future.”┬áHe started looking at the history of physical security one day when he looked at an old Yale & Towne lock and realized his familial legacy in locks.

The research brought Schuyler to work with lock manufacturers, but also to speak at hacker conferences, where people are concerned with the modern electronic versions of locks. Most electronic locks are housed in the same mechanical systems we’ve been breaking forever, and can be defeated with simple tools like magnets and plastic mallets.

As a result, Schuyler found little to get excited about in modern lock manufacturing, and trained his sights on the history of locks. His research brought him to the toy designers at Hasbro to talk about the rich engineering history and complexity of lock, and to a group of mystery book writers interested in lock forensics. These new audiences have validated his interest and continued research — he knows he’s on an interesting path when no one in the audience already knows what he’s talking about.

At Foo Camp, he told the story of the Crocal boys, two deaf, mute brothers at the turn of the century. They were thieves, picking neighbors’ locks as children simply because they could. Schuyler sees a little bit of himself in their story, as he stole credit card numbers as a 9-year old on AOL, not because he was going to get himself a free subscription to Highlights magazine, but because he could.

He’s found lock-picking contests and competitions throughout history in the literature from and before the 1850s. The literature is written in great detail and shows a common understanding of the mechanics of locks and picking. The technique they describe, applying tension and manipulating tumblers, is still the method we use to pick locks today. But, by 1900, locksmiths had become technicians. Locksmiths used to make locks. Mass production of locks created a lot of technicians, so when you have a craftsmen-like base turned into technicians, technicians realize that private knowledge is money and begin to build a guild. The locksmith guild system begins to take over as people grow fearful that security doesn’t actually exist.

For 200 years we’ve believed the lock originated in Egypt 4,000 years ago, because a French pornographer said so. When Schuyler sat down to write about the origins of the lock, his internal bullshit alarm went off. He has picked up all sorts of historical knowledge using locks as his starting point, including awareness that children could be locked away in state prisons.

There was a moment in time where the world believe in perfect security. We all believed that a lock could protect something. It wasn’t the belief of one time, but rather 4 generations of people. Historically, locks were tested much more rigorously, where a lockpicker would attack it with tools for 30 straight days. Today, a lock can be picked in 15 minutes, max.

There are various classes of strategies for defeating a lock. One is Surretiptious Destruction, where you destroy an internal part of the lock to gain access, but do so in a way where the lock’s owner will not become aware that the security has been compromised unless they investigate the lock.

The premise of security for a long time was Warded Locks. The key avoids the corresponding plates in the lock and triggers the latch to open it. The skeleton key is able to avoid plates in many locks. The Arabs made more sophisticated locks, and the French made beautiful locks and keys.

Barama invents the world’s first truly secure mechanical lock, where the maker cannot necessarily open it. For four generations, people believed in the idea of perfect security. In 1851, the mechanical lock was picked, the notion of perfect security was destroyed, and we’re still in the fallout of that realization today.

Locksmithing is still a heavily controlled skill. The locksmithing guild system persists because, from 1851 to 1900, locks became a taboo. Right now we live in that same bubble. Whatever we believe in practicing that is at all counter-societal or counter-cultural, we are being allowed to explore it at the pleasure of authorities, and people are growing upset with our ability to explore.

Schuyler wants us to be able to explore closed spaces, like hacking and cryptography. But digital security is becoming specialized knowledge as physical security and locks had, and as this continues to happen, we risk losing our actual security.

Locks were always meant to be used in tandem with human beings. Locks were the original 2-step authentication, invented to stand as a secondary guard, after a human guard. The human could be murdered or bribed, but would not have the key to the lock. The way we actually use locks today is as a token of a social contract we have with each other. The actual reason we respond the way we do to locks (not picking them) is because of the social constructs around them. We enjoy being part of society, so we respect each other’s desires for security by not violating the social contract of the locks we use.

Schuyler’s proud that his ancestor’s company was one of the only that said to their customers, “Any lock with a key can be picked. Use ours because they are convenient, universal, made to a higher quality, but don’t forget, they can be picked.” Yale and other lockmakers and digital security companies no longer advertise this fact to their customers, but it is still true.

This post was written with Becky Hurwitz.