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

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.

Nothing nefarious
“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.

“Lock-picking is an art,” he says sadly. “Criminals don’t really go in for it any more.”

After a short debate about which lock is the easiest to pick, Mitchell shows me how to use the “torsion tool” to get traction on a small padlock while I wield a “snake” to jimmy the internal pins.

Take your pick
“There’s a bit of a rush when you pop your first lock,” he says, and he’s right. After I pick my first, I experience a small surge of triumph. “When you show people how easy some locks are to pick, a lot go, ‘Oh God, I’m using one of those on my bike!’” says Felle.

They discuss which locks are most difficult to open. “This is a very good German lock,” says Mitchell, handing me an involved-looking brass contraption. “I haven’t got into it yet.”

Of course, lock-picking is only one strand of what they do at Tog. They host talks about software and digital security. They run an open source software night and craft night.

“Nowadays ‘hacking’ often just means ‘making’,” says Mitchell as he points out various projects members are working on. There’s an automated sewing machine that once worked on punch cards currently being redesigned in ways I don’t fully understand. There’s an old-fashioned arcade games console newly connected to a PC. There’s a 3D printer. There’s a drone.

“Seán, show Patrick your drone,” says Mitchell and Nicholls unveils a strange plastic contraption with four helicopter blades. Using an iPad he flies it treacherously around the room filming everything it passes. We duck nervously before it careens into the wall and falls to the ground with a crash.

“Are you sure you’re not trainee supervillains?” I ask.

“If we were, would we tell you?” says Nicholls.

Love’s labour locked
In reality the lock-picking people of Tog use their powers for good, not evil. They’re thinking of asking Dublin City Council for permission to pick the “love locks” lovelorn teens have padlocked to the Ha’penny Bridge. “We stopped to look at them to see how easy it would be,” says Mitchell. “But we were attracting attention so we moved on. We wouldn’t want people to think we were up to anything.”