Protecting Against Tomorrow’s Threats Today

Aug. 15, 2022
The reality of technological advances and the depersonalization of key cutting brings the threat of unaccounted-for keys closer every day.

When it comes to commercial, federal and industrial buildings, the traditional door security threats are the usual suspects — drilling or picking locks and unauthorized key duplication. These threats easily can be mitigated through the use of patent-protected keys and durable, high-security cylinders that have drill, pick and bump resistance.

But what’s on the horizon?

Recent years have seen an uptick in 3D printing accessibility and trends toward removing the human aspect of service interactions. These days, most everyday services — including key-cutting services — are requested, scheduled and can be carried out via a digital tool.

On the surface, these technologies seem like harmless advancements, developed to make the process of manufacturing and cutting keys easier and quicker. But the actual effect could be more sinister.

Emerging Threats

3D printing is an exciting technology, and it makes manufacturing and prototyping quicker, easier and less expensive. It also is readily available. As the technology evolves, it becomes more powerful, more affordable and more accessible — even to “bad guys.”

A key advantage of 3D printing is the capability to create and replicate incredibly complex features that otherwise are unattainable through the use of high-volume subtractive manufacturing processes, such as machining or casting. This capability makes copying even the most difficult-to-cut keys simple and adds a whole new dynamic to the concept of unauthorized key duplication.

In other words, complex keys that traditionally would be difficult to reproduce are potentially easy to scan and copy without the owners’ knowledge, which increases the risk of illegitimately copied keys.

3D printing isn’t the only way to copy a key without the owners’ knowledge. The increasing implementation of automated, unmanned kiosks removes the personal interaction and vetting process that previously has been able to verify that a person is authorized to duplicate a key.

In the past, going to a big-box store and getting a key copied was primarily for homeowners. But recent years have seen an uptick in big-box stores promoting the fact that they can duplicate commercial and office keys by using a kiosk, rather than a locksmith or even a worker at the big-box store who could cut keys. Unattended kiosks likely will become more ubiquitous.

Rather than involving a locksmith, who could verify a person’s identity and permissions, most unattended key-cutting kiosks require just the original key to copy.

Even more threatening are digital tools that allow someone to order a duplicate key with only a picture of the key from a mobile device or app. Think about it: You leave your keys unattended on your desk for a few moments. In that time, someone could take a picture of your key, take the image to an unmanned kiosk and have a duplicate of that key made within moments. Without the barrier of an authorized key machine, duplication is easier than ever.

These technologies are creating an unprecedented number of “phantom” keys, which makes key inventory and secure access control increasingly difficult. Because the duplication of these keys isn’t traceable, neither are the keys that become circulated, which makes it more difficult to manage the people and parties who have access to physical spaces. As the technologies continue to grow, so will the problem of unauthorized key duplication and the investment required to protect your properties.

The bottom line? The increasing accessibility of 3D printing and the rise of unmanned key-cutting tools not only put your customers and their assets at risk, but they also take money out of your pocket.

Tomorrow’s solutions

Although 3D printers and kiosks are capable of replicating complex, fixed models, they have their limits. As with any component, the more complex and intricate the mechanics, the more difficult a key is to reproduce.

Conventional keys have fixed features, so their attributes are fairly simple for key machines and printers to scan and replicate. To make duplication more difficult, some manufacturers have implemented a moveable element into their key designs to combat the threat of unauthorized duplication. The moveable element works by moving within the key blade as the blade enters the lock and encounters the lock’s mechanisms. This makes replicating keys that have a moveable element through the use of 3D printing nearly impossible.

For instance, Medeco recently released its M4 patented high-security keyway, which includes a shuttle pin on the key. The shuttle pin moves back and forth inside the key blade as it activates the lift pins inside a lock. Because the element isn’t static, a 3D printer or key machine couldn’t reproduce the shuttle pin across all of its latitudes in the blades. This provides an added layer of protection against unauthorized duplication.

Another way to ensure secured facilities in the event of unauthorized duplication is to use an intelligent-key system rather than a typical mechanical key.

Intelligent keys provide controlled access, accountability, physical security and system management. They combine smart technology typically associated with smart locks and complete electronic access control systems with the convenience and easy installation of mechanical key and lock systems. Intelligent keys work by requiring that the physical attributes of the key and the permissions associated with the electronic attributes in the key and the cylinders are compatible.

Although 3D printing, kiosks and digital scanners can clone the physical features of a key, they aren’t able to copy the electronic attributes of intelligent keys and locks. The mechanical and electrical attributes and credentials are necessary for the key to open the lock. As of today, electronic attributes can be replicated only by using well-protected and encrypted communications from the original manufacturer.  

Be Prepared

Although 3D printing and automated kiosks aren’t a widespread threat today, their presence is growing. As these tools become more accessible to those who have bad intentions, they will become a more commonplace potential threat.

Make sure you protect against the threats of today and futureproof against the threats of tomorrow through the use of strategic key systems for your commercial, federal and industrial buildings. Locksmiths, it’s up to you to educate and inform your customers about the emerging threats and the right key systems for their threat landscape. These systems not only will protect and add to your customers’ bottom line, but they also will add to yours as well.

Dale L. Bowman, CML, CPP, PSP, PCI, LEED BD+C, is Medeco’s director of business development, OEM and international sales.

About the Author

Dale L. Bowman

Dale L. Bowman, CML, CPP, PSP, PCI, LEED BD+C, is Medeco’s director of business development, OEM and international sales.