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Lock-Picking Made Easy: New Key Duplication Tool Demonstrates Physical Security Risk

UC-San Diego researchers show that a photograph is all you need to duplicate a key

It's a physical security nightmare: Computer scientists have created software that can duplicate the key to your office or house -- without having the key itself in hand. All it needs is a photo image of the key to duplicate it.

The University of California at San Diego (UCSD) scientists say the goal was to demonstrate how keys are not really secret, according to a post on the UCSD Website. "Technology trends in computer vision are at a point where we need to consider new risks for physical security systems," said Kai Wang, one of the UC San Diego researchers and a computer science graduate student.

The key duplication system use a key's "bitting code," which is based on the series of around six cuts in most U.S. residential locks. These patterns represent a numeric code that instructs how to open the lock. The system analyzes an image of the key, along with the brand and key type, to build a duplicate key. The researchers demonstrated how the system works using either a cell phone camera image, or even a five-inch telephoto lens shooting a key from the rooftop of a campus building.

"This idea should come as little surprise to locksmiths or lock vendors," said Stefan Savage, a computer science professor from UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering, who headed up the research. "There are experts who have been able to copy keys by hand from high-resolution photographs for some time. However, we argue that the threat has turned a corner -- cheap image sensors have made digital cameras pervasive and basic computer vision techniques can automatically extract a key's information without requiring any expertise."

The UCSD researchers haven't released their software publicly. Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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