Future Tense

Hacker Uses 3-D Printed Keys to Crack Police Handcuffs

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

High-tech criminals typically use their hacking skills to unlock information. But in a presentation Friday at a New York hacker conference, a German security consultant showed how 21st-century technology can be used to unlock, well, locks.

Forbes’ Andy Greenberg reports that the security consultant, who goes by the name “Ray,” used a 3-D printer to cheaply produce plastic versions of the keys to high-security handcuffs manufactured by the English company Chubb and the German company Bonowi. Ray’s plastic keys easily sprung open both firms’ cuffs.

This is a serious problem for handcuff makers, because police departments typically use the same keys to unlock all of the handcuffs made by a given manufacturer. And while determined crooks have always been able to reproduce keys at metal-working shops if they have access to the originals, 3-D printing makes it possible for just about anyone to churn out their own copies if they have access to the digital blueprint.

How would they get such access? Well, Ray has one answer: According to Greenberg, “he plans to upload the CAD files for the Chubb key to the 3D-printing Web platform Thingiverse after the annual lockpicking conference LockCon later this week.”

Ray says his goal is not to undermine police, but to make them aware of their handcuffs’ vulnerabilities. Police are supposed to monitor detainees even when they’re cuffed, but a false sense of security could lead them to ignore protocol.

This isn’t the only way that 3-D printing can come in handy for criminals. Gangs have used the technology in the past to build better skimmers for ATM machines, and gun enthusiasts have printed rifle parts that would normally require a permit to buy.*

Reactionary security types will probably interpret these anecdotes as reason to regulate 3-D printers, but that would be premature. New technologies don’t create the arms race between criminals and authorities—they just change the rules.

*Correction: This article originally stated that 3-D printing allowed gun enthusiasts to circumvent the federal assault weapons ban. That ban expired in 2004.