Recreational lock-pickers open up about their craft
Once a fortnight members of Dublin hackerspace Tog meet to chat and pick locks
Martin Mitchell, who runs a lock-pickers club. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Seán Nicholls gets funny looks when he tells people he’s going lock-picking. “The guy beside me where I work thinks I’m some sort of underworld kingpin,” he says. His lock- picking kit is in a neat pouch the size of a pencil case.
Martin Mitchell, aka Jester, takes this as his cue to unroll his own larger kit, a long cloth roll with about 20 different lock-picking tools neatly lined up inside. It’s like something Sid James might unfurl in an Ealing comedy caper. “Compensating for something, are we?” says Nicholls and everyone laughs.
The lock-picking night every second Tuesday at Tog (tog.ie), Dublin’s “hackerspace”, feels like it should be a module at a nefarious comic book School of Crime. However, no one is taking garrotting classes or blackmail seminars; it’s just 12 men hunched around a table picking locks. There’s a pile of differently sized padlocks and bicycle locks in the centre of the table and they’re working their way through them.
There’s a pirate flag on the wall, an untidy shelf of books by authors such as Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov by the door, and rubber ducks glued to the ceiling (discarded after an O2 marketing campaign). In the warehouse next door a man is playing the drums.
“No one is doing this for nefarious reasons,” says Mitchell (long hair, bushy beard).“Although how can you know?” asks Andrew Felle (strawberry blond goatee) thoughtfully. “Thieves could look like you or me. You wouldn’t want to generalise.”
“On the other hand, if you were learning this skill for something secret and illegal,
I don’t think going to a public meeting is the best way to achieve that,” says Nicholls (cropped hair).
Most of those present first encountered recreational lock-picking at international tech and security conventions and hacker events, where it’s become a bit of a cult activity.
“It’s a form of puzzle-solving,” says Felle. “It comes out of the same mindset as computer hacking.” In some countries there are competitions where lock manufacturers present the competitors with difficult locks and they race against the clock. “But we’re not at that level yet,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell works as a penetration tester for a large multinational. His job is to find holes in computer systems, but because of his unusual hobby he’s regularly asked to open lockers when colleagues forget their keys. He and his friends get their lock-picking equipment from a UK company. The legal status of such equipment in Ireland is a little vague but, as Felle notes, those with truly criminal intentions tend to use bolt cutters these days.