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Friday, September 26, 2008

Pick a lock. For fun. (It's legal too)

By Trine Tsouderos

Tribune reporter

September 25, 2008

Give Eric Michaud a can of beer (Guinness works best) and a pair of scissors and he can open just about any garden-variety padlock in seconds.

This is how: During a recent interview at a North Side bar, Michaud, a prominent lockpicking hobbyist (you read it right), cut the top and bottom off a can and carved a wavy M-shape out of the middle. He then folded and refolded it in such a way that it could be inserted between the lock and the shackle. A twist and voila! The lock popped open.

Making shims (as they are called in lockpicking circles and yes, there are lockpicking circles) like these are the source of a little lock pickers' humor, explained Michaud, who is 26, a co-founder of The Open Organization of Lockpickers US (TOOOL, for short) and who is famous, among global lock pickers, for his finesse in making lockpicking tools.

"We say, if you have a soda can next to a few pickers at work, you might want to upgrade your security."

Heh. Heh ... heh. Hmm.

So now is probably a good time to address a disturbing thought that might be forming in your head, about whether we are writing about the Criminal Element, about whether these guys are going to show up in the middle of the night and pick your locks and whether any of us are really safe if a 26-year-old North Sider with a can of stout is able to open a padlock with no trouble at all.

The quick answer is no, we are not safe. The lockpicking community has managed to "tear down," as they say, every single lock it has gotten its hands on except one, the Finnish Abloy Protec. And yeah, they are working hard on that one.

So now that we have you alarmed, the good news, sort of. Bad people trying to break into your home don't pick locks. They break them, or break windows, or come in some other way.

And the lockpicking hobbyists, alert to the fact their "sport" could be used as training for bad people, work hard to weed out anyone suspicious, like new people who arrive at a meeting with a picture of a specific lock they want to open.

"That is the No. 1 concern," said Doug Farre, the 21-year-old founder of Locksport International, a lockpickers' hobbyist group. But, Farre said, once those people find out it can take hundreds of hours of practice to learn to pick that lock, and that it can take a long time to actually do it once you do learn, they are never heard from again.

Michaud, who heads up Chicago's TOOOL chapter by night and works on nuclear security at Argonne National Laboratory by day, said they warn anyone suspicious that they will report them to the police if they even get a whiff that the person is up to no good. It's never gotten that far, he said. "You give the talk and never see them again," he said.

Lock pickers, whose hobby is legal in all 50 states in case you were wondering, have a creed of sorts. It goes something like this: You can pick your own locks, you can pick your friends' locks (with their permission), but you can't pick anyone else's locks.

So with that out of the way, the question remains, what the heck kind of hobby is this?

"When I think of the face of the community, I think of the guys sitting with their kids on the couch picking locks," said Schuyler Towne, editor of Non-Destructive Entry magazine. "Most of the guys are doing it with friends. I do it at my local bar."

You can do it at a bar because you don't have to look at a lock much to pick it. In fact, staring at a lock as you are working on it is useless, because the mechanism is well hidden inside the metal casing. A beginner's mistake is to spend a lot of time peering into the keyhole while trying to open it.

So you can watch TV and pick. You can sit in class and pick. You can listen to the radio and pick. You can chitchat—about lockpicking, if you wish—and pick.

There are now lockpicking clubs all over America (and, for a long time, in places like Germany and Netherlands) from Anchorage to Chicago to Boston.

In Chicago, TOOOL spills a bunch of locks all over tables and picks them while chatting once a month at the Chicago 2600 club meeting, a hackers club (for computer hackers who are to lock pickers as your sister is to your brother).

And, there are competitions, all kinds, from speed picking to key impressioning contests to safecracking races. In a few weeks, in fact, the lockpicking community is holding its oldest and most respected championships, Lock Con, in Sneek, Netherlands.

But more than the social and competitive aspect of lockpicking, it turns out there is a real thrill to picking locks beyond never having to worry about losing your keys (which is a pretty good benefit too).

It's like this big industry—the lock-making industry—really makes intricate puzzles out of steel and iron. The harder the puzzle, the more the lock pickers want to solve it. "It is addicting," Farre said. "Once you feel that lock open, you feel like god."

And that first lock? Magic. "They say you always remember your first lock," said Towne.

"I was ecstatic. I had this huge rush and I thought, 'This is amazing,' " Michaud said, describing the first time he picked a lock. He was at the 2004 Hackers on Planet Earth convention; it was a Master Lock and he used a rake and a torque tool, both of which look like dental instruments.

Today, he finds that technique rather "inelegant" and spends his time fashioning custom tools to exploit weaknesses in specific locks. He is, depending on how you see it, a lock industry nightmare.

It's seductive, that opening of the forbidden. "There is this predisposition that you have to use a key to open a lock and your whole life there is no other way to do it," Farre said. "It goes along with that hacker mentality, that people tell you have to do it this way and you know there is another way to do it."

At the bar, Michaud showed this reporter how to pick a simple Master Lock with a small hook and a torque tool. After this reporter worked on it for many frustrating fruitless minutes, Michaud bent down, his ear near the lock.

Release the torque tool, just a bit, he said. The lock made a barely audible click.