Scientists at the University of California, San Diego have developed a software algorithm that automatically creates a physical key based solely on a picture of one, regardless of angle or distance.
The project, called Sneakey, was meant to warn people about the dangers of haphazardly placing keys in the open or posting images of them online.
For a more dramatic demonstration, the researchers set up a camera with a zoom lens 200 feet away. Using those photos, they were able to create a working key 80 percent of the time on their first try. Within three attempts they opened every lock.
The replication process is very easy. Once they have the image it takes the software roughly 30 seconds to decode the ridges and grooves on the key. If the angle is off or the lighting is tricky it takes the computer take a little longer. The longest part of the process, about one whole minute, is cutting the key.
Marc Weber Tobias, an attorney and security expert, says the UCSD project does a good job of underscoring the insecurity of conventional cylinder locks. But the idea of someone standing up to a mile away stealing keys with high resolution camera is small compared to the next generation of video cameras being installed.
"The real issue is the new digital video cameras shooting at 30 frames a second," said Tobias. "There are millions and millions of these cameras everywhere." If someone got their hands on sensitive parts of the video they could easily duplicate key sets.
Professional locksmiths, and the UCSD scientists won't use their talents or technology for ill-gotten gains. But not everyone is so ethical, and experts urge people to take physical security more seriously.
This isn't the biggest security threat that you might face, but it would surely be wise to only take your keys out when you are about to use them.