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Although lock picking can be associated with criminal intent, it is an essential skill for the legitimate profession of locksmithing, and is also pursued by law-abiding citizens as a useful skill to learn, or simply as a hobby (locksport).
In some countries, such as Japan, lock picking tools are illegal for most people to possess, but in many others they are available and legal to own as long as there is no intent to use them for criminal purposes.
Locks by definition secure or fasten something with the intention that access be possible only with the matching key. Despite this, it is likely that criminal lock picking started with the first locks. Famed locksmith Alfred Charles Hobbs said in the mid 1800s:
Rogues are very keen in their profession, and know already much more than we can teach them respecting their several kinds of roguery. Rogues knew a good deal about lock-picking long before locksmiths discussed it among themselves...
Professional and recreational lock picking also has a long history. King Louis XVI of France (1754–1793) was a keen designer, picker and manipulator of locks, and physicist Richard Feynman picked locks for fun in the 1940s while employed on the Manhattan Project. The tradition of student roof and tunnel hacking at MIT included lockpicking, and their guide to this was made widely available in 1991.
The warded pick also known as a skeleton key, is used for opening warded locks. It is generally made to conform to a generalized key shape relatively simpler than the actual key used to open the lock; this simpler shape allows for internal manipulations.
The keys for warded locks only require the back end manipulating which is the end which actually opens the lock. The other parts are there to distinguish between different variation of their locks. I.e if you have a chest of drawers with a warded lock you can make a skeleton key for that type of warded lock by filing away all but the last one or two teeth or bittings on both sides of the blade. Additionally, a series of grooves on either side of the key's blade limit the type of lock the key can slide into. As the key slides into the lock through the keyway, the wards align with the grooves in the key's profile to allow or deny entry into the lock cylinder.
Lever tumbler locks can be opened by a type of lockpick called curtain pick.
The torsion wrench, or tension wrench, is generally used when picking a pin/tumbler or wafer lock. It is used to apply torque to the plug of a lock in order to hold any picked pins in place. Once all pins are picked, the torsion wrench is then used to turn the plug and open the lock. There are two basic types - "bottom of the keyway" and "top of the keyway". Bottom of the keyway wrenches are typically shaped like a letter "L", although the vertical part of the letter is elongated in comparison to the horizontal part. Other torsion tools, especially those for use with cars, resemble a pair of tweezers and allow the user to apply torque to both the top and the bottom of the lock. These are commonly used with double-sided wafer locks.
This versatile pick is included in nearly all kits and is mainly used for picking individual pins, but can also be used for raking and for wafer and disk locks. The triangular-shaped half-diamond is usually 2.5 to 12.2 millimeters (0.098 to 0.480 inches) long. The angles that form the base of the half-diamond can be either steep or shallow, depending on the need for picking without affecting neighboring pins, or raking as appropriate. A normal set comprises around three half-diamond picks and a full-diamond pick.
The hook pick is similar to the half-diamond pick, but has a hook-shaped tip rather than a half-diamond shape. The hook pick is sometimes referred to as a "feeler" or "finger" and is not used for raking. This is the most basic lockpicking tool and is all that a professional will usually need if the lock is to be picked in the traditional sense rather than opened by raking or using a pick gun. A variety of differently sized and shaped hooks are available in a normal set.
The ball pick is similar to the half-diamond pick, except the end of the pick has a half or full circle shape. This pick is commonly used to open wafer locks.
These picks, such as the common snake rake, are designed to rake pins by rapidly sliding the pick past all the pins, repeatedly, in order to bounce the pins until they reach the shear line. This method requires much less skill than picking pins individually, and generally works well on cheaper locks. Advanced rakes are available which are shaped to mimic various different pin height key positions and are considerably easier to use than traditional rakes. Such rakes are typically machined from a template of common key configurations, since not all permutations of pin heights for adjacent pins are possible given the process by which keys are manufactured.
The decoder pick is a key which has been adapted such that the height of its notches can be changed, either by screwing them into the blade base or by adjusting them from the handle while the key is in the lock. This will allow not only access to the lock but also a template for cutting a replacement key.
The simplest way to open the majority of pin locks is to insert a key (or variety of keys) which have been cut so that each peak of the key is equal and has been cut down to the lowest groove of the key. This key is then struck sharply with a hammer whilst applying torque. The force of the blow is carried down the length of the key and (operating as does a Newton's cradle) will move only the driver pins leaving the key pins in place. If done correctly this briefly creates a gap around the shear line allowing the plug to rotate freely. Some modern high security locks include bumping protection, such as Master Lock's "BumpStop" and Ilco's "Bump Halt" technology.
Majority of wafer tumbler locks can be opened with a set of jigglers or try-out keys.
The manual pick gun (or snap gun) was invented by Ely Epstein. It usually has a trigger that creates a movement which (like bump keys) transfers sudden energy to the key pins which communicate this to the driver pins causing those pins only to jump, allowing the cylinder to turn freely for a brief moment, until the pin springs return the pins to their locking position. Electric versions are now also common, where by simply pressing a button the pins are vibrated while the normal torsion wrench is being used.
A tubular lock pick is a specialized lockpicking tool used for opening a tubular pin tumbler lock. Tubular lock picks are all very similar in design and come in sizes to fit all major tubular locks, including 6, 7, 8, and 10-pin locks. The tool is simply inserted into the lock and turned clockwise with medium torque. As the tool is pushed into the lock, each of the pins is slowly forced down until they stop, thus binding the driver pins behind the shear line of the lock. When the final pick is pushed down, the shear plane is clear and the lock opens. This can usually be accomplished in a matter of seconds.
Most tubular lock picks come with a "decoder" which lets the locksmith know at what depths the pins broke the shear plane. By using the decoding key after the lock has been picked, the locksmith can cut a tubular key to the correct pin depths and thus avoid having to replace the lock.
Today's anti-picking methods in standard pin tumbler locks include the use of side wards which obstruct the key way, and "security pins". These are shaped like a spool, mushroom, or barrel - with the effect that they feel as though they have set when in fact they have not.
In Canada, possession of lock picking tools, with the exception of key duplication tools, is legal. Lock pick tools fit in the same category as crowbars or hammers, meaning they are legal to possess and use unless they are used to commit a crime or if it is shown there was intention to commit a crime. Section 351 of the Canadian Criminal Code criminalizes the "possession any instrument suitable for the purpose of breaking into any place, motor vehicle, vault or safe under circumstances that give rise to a reasonable inference that the instrument has been used or is or was intended to be used for such a purpose", and carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Some provinces require a license to carry lock picks. Unlike most laws in Canada, the onus is on the defendant to prove that they have a legal purpose to use the lock picks. The Government is not required to prove that the defendant has an unlawful or malicious intent.
There is no law or regulation on lock picking, so it is legal as long as you have a permission to pick a lock that is not in one's own possession. Lock picking tools can be freely bought and sold. There are several clubs where lock picking is practised as a sport. Lock picking has also become a popular part of geocaching in Germany. There are also lock picking workshops as geocaching events.
Unusually for a European Union country, ownership of lock picks in Hungary is completely prohibited, even for professional locksmiths. Lock picks are classified as military equipment, and may only be legally obtained or used by Hungary's armed forces.
Japan's law prohibits possession of any lock picking tools and carries a penalty of one year imprisonment or a 500,000 yen fine.
In the Netherlands, owning lock picks is legal, but using them on someone else's locks without permission is not. There is a lock picking championship, the Dutch Open (organized by TOOOL), which started in 2002 and features competitors from around the world. The competition is held during LockCon, an annual conference about locks.
In Poland according to Article 129/1 of the Criminal Code: both (1) possessing, producing or obtaining a lock pick by a person whose profession and occupation does not require it; and (2) delivering a lock pick to a person whose profession and occupation does not require it is punishable with arrest, freedom limitation or fine - and (3) a lock pick is forfeited even if it was not the property of the principal.
In England and Wales, a person who carries anything at all with the intent to commit burglary or theft can potentially be prosecuted. The penalty for this can be up to 3 years imprisonment. In the case of items specifically made or altered to be usable in burglary or theft, such as lock-picks, mere possession presumes intent – there is no need to prove it.
In the United States, laws concerning possession of lock picks vary from state to state. Generally, possession and use of lock picks is considered equivalent to the possession of a crowbar or any other tool that may or may not be used in a burglary. Illegal possession of lock picks is generally prosecuted as a felony under the category of possession of burglary tools or similar statutes. In many states, simple possession is completely legal as their statutes require proof of intent.
In California, locksmiths must be licensed by the state. However, possession by laypeople may be legal in most states. This is the case because illegal possession must be coupled with felonious or malicious intent. This is also the case in Arizona, Utah, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Washington D.C., Washington State, and New York.
Executive Summary: The MIT Hacking community is saddened by the series of recent events which have made the "MIT Guide To Lockpicking" available electronically in a indiscriminate fashion.