Technology 2 min read

Researchers use Smartphone App to Pick Physical Locks

Mabel Amber /

Mabel Amber /

Unlocking physical locks on the front doors of most homes is simple.

It begins with inserting the proper metal key into the keyhole and turning it. The action pushes a series of pins in the lock by a specific amount based on the key’s ridges.

If it matches a preset condition, the tumbler turns, retracting the door assembly’s metal piece from its berth. Then, the door opens.

Using this general unlocking process, researchers Soundarya Ramesh, Harini Ramprasad, and Jun Han developed SpiKey, an unlocking system that can be operated via a smartphone device.

The researchers wrote in their published paper:

“In this paper, we propose SpiKey, a novel attack that significantly lowers the bar for an attacker by requiring only the use of a smartphone microphone to infer the shape of the victim’s key.”

The trio described their work in a workshop called HotMobile 2020 at the International Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications.

Using SpiKey to Pick Physical Locks

First, the researchers recorded the sound made when the key comes in contact with the pins and moves upward. Then, the team used software to recreate the conditions that produced the same noises.

Thanks to these conditions, the team was able to fabricate a metal key to unlock the door.

The resulting system is called SpiKey. And it involves using a smartphone to record lock clicks and decipher them. After that, it creates a key signature that attackers can use to make a new metal key.

When a victim inserts his/her key into the lock, the emitted sound is captured by the attacker’s microphone,” the researchers said. “SpiKey leverages the time difference between audible clicks to ultimately infer the bitting information.

With that said, the system is not perfect.

SpiKey’s Major Downside

The researchers admitted that the system’s primary downside is that it requires recording the physical key while it unlocks the door.

It also means that the recording should be done secretly. Otherwise, the attacker risks alerting the homeowners that they’re picking the lock.

As such, options for recording for the wrongdoers include:

  • Walking past the home with a microphone
  • Hiding a microphone nearby
  • Installing the software on the victim’s phone

Each of these methods comes with a unique risk. Hopefully, it would be enough to deter run-of-the mil burglars from using such an approach.

Read More: U.S. Military Software Can Unlock Your Smartphone Using Body Movements

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Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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