Articles appearing in Locksmith Ledger always deal with facts. We report on either how a product works or how to sell or service a product. As a rule we do not offer an opinion except in editorials. This particular article is an exception to that rule. The subject of this article is important and goes to the core of what locksmithing is all about.
During my career as a locksmith, I only resorted to so-called ‘breaker’ tools as a last result. In my opinion, in a lockout situation, locksmiths should depend on their skills to either pick open or professionally bypass locked hardware. That is what separates us from any hack with a hammer or battery drill.
When a customer watches a skilled locksmith in action, that customer is prepared to pay well for those services. Unless there is no other way, when a locksmith forcibly damages a lock in order to gain access, the profession of locksmithing suffers.
In the last few years a few individuals have tried to gain notoriety through their efforts to inform the public about perceived weaknesses in pin tumbler locks. Videos showing bumping and picking procedures can be freely viewed on many Internet web sites. One interesting facet of these campaigns is that they seem to have focused their wrath on only a few selected lock manufacturers while every pin tumbler lock manufacturer is using a similar spring-driven system.
The pin tumbler lock idea is said to go back to Egyptian times, but the modern paracentric pin tumbler version can be generally traced back to inventor Linus Yale in approximately 1860. During the last 150 years there have been some competitive alternatives for the basic pin tumbler lock design. Wafer locks, sidewinder locks, lever locks and rotating disc locks are just a few of the innovations which have emerged. When factors such as simplicity of design, infinite varieties of keyways, large amount of possible key changes, relatively good security and ease of manufacture are taken into consideration, pin tumbler locks have continued to stay in the game after all this time.
One problem with basic pin tumbler locks is that they must be disassembled in order to change the key combination.
Kwikset recently introduced a system called SmartKey which is designed to allow combination changing without disassembly. The Kwikset cylinder uses a sidebar locking design. For more information on the SmartKey operation, refer to Locksmith Ledger articles in May ‘07, page 38 and October ‘07, page 78.
One locksmith wrote to Locksmith Ledger after our 2007 articles appeared. He claimed that on one occasion he had picked open a SmartKey lock. I could not independently verify these reports.
As soon as turning pressure is exerted on the Smart Key plug, the sidebar is designed to move inward and prevent movement of the tumblers. Theoretically someone would have to be fortunate enough to simultaneously hold all the tumblers in their correct unlocked position and then rotate the plug at that instant. I do not believe that standard picking procedures are a practical technique for unlocking Kwikset SmartKey locks.
It was found that depth tolerances were loose enough to allow tryout keys with half-step cuts to operate the locks. Since SmartKey locks used depths of 1-6, depth keys with 3 depths operating cuts of 1/2, 3/4 and 5/6 might operate the locks. This seriously limited the amount of usable change keys which would not cause interchanges with other Kwikset keys.
Another possibility was forced entry. Original Kwikset SmartKey lock designs used a rounded sidebar. Turning pressure on the plug caused the rounded sidebar to move inward. Inward movement deterred picking, but it also decreased the amount of sidebar material holding the plug in the locked position.
At least one manufacturer introduced a tool which forces the sidebar inward enough to fully turn the plug. While termed a bypass tool, this tool can actually cause damage to the lock and prevent combination changing in the future. Since the owner’s original key may still operate, the forced entry could go undiscovered. In my opinion, the lock cylinder should be replaced any time this tool is used.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Locks are basically designed to deter unlocking by outsiders while allowing smooth access by owners or those entitled. As security requirements increase, locks become more complicated and thus more complex in normal operation. Every lock mechanism is designed to best balance three qualities: security, ease of usage and cost of manufacture.
Locksmiths should have confidence in the products they sell and install. In my opinion, a locksmith should contact the manufacturer whenever they discover a possible weakness in a security product. Manufacturers want to sell the best possible product and are more than interested in hearing from you.
I contacted Kwikset engineers concerning my SmartKey findings. I believe this is the right thing to do rather than broadcast it in some public forum.
In this case, Kwikset engineers were already aware of the tolerance questions and volunteered to send me samples of their new SmartKey design which is now in production.
Photo 1 shows the original SmartKey housing with a large rounded locking slot for the sidebar. Photo 3 shows an original Kwikset SmartKey lock plug with their original rounded sidebar.
Photo 2 shows the narrowed, “V” shaped sidebar slot used for the improved Kwikset Smart Key design. Photo 4 shows the new longer sidebar which no longer has a heavily rounded design.
In addition to the new, sturdy sidebar design, tolerances within the housing have also been tightened. It is no longer possible to use the tryout key concept as with the earlier design. With improved sidebar design and tightened tolerances, this new cylinder decreases the likelihood of using force tools. Even if the force tool is successful, noticeable damage to the lock will occur.
Obviously there are many more usable key combinations now available because of this new design. The old and new lock cylinders look outwardly similar, but changes and improvements have been made to every inner part.
In addition to the improved SmartKey design, regular features of the 780 deadbolt make this a durable, dependable security product. The deadbolt unit contains a heavy duty strike plate with four retaining screws, a deadbolt with one-inch throw plus quick adjustment for a 2 3/8” or 2 3/4” backset, large diameter thumb turn and outer trim rings plus the Smart Key rekeyable cylinder, all in one affordable package.