University of California San Diego scientists have developed software, called “Sneakey,” that can duplicate keys without having the key; instead, the computer scientists only need a digital image of the key taken from almost any distance and angle.
“We built our key duplication software system to show people that their keys are not inherently secret,” said Stefan Savage, the computer science professor from UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering who led the student-run project. “Perhaps this was once a reasonable assumption, but advances in digital imaging and optics have made it easy to duplicate someone’s keys from a distance without them even noticing.”
In a demonstration of the Sneakey program, the UCSD researchers took photographs of common house keys with a mobile phone camera, uploaded the photo into their software and then produced the codes and measurements needed to make exact copies. In another example, scientists took photographs of keys situated on a table that was approximately 200 feet from the photographer shooting from a campus rooftop with a telephoto zoom lens and then made duplicate keys using information processed through Sneakey.
The peaks and valleys on your house or office keys actually translate into a specific numeric key code, called a “bitting code.” The Sneakey software system can extrapolate this bitting code from photos taken of keys at nearly any angle by measuring the depth and spacing of each cut in a key. Together with basic information on the brand and type of key you have, you have all the information you need to make a duplicate key.
“This idea should come as little surprise to locksmiths, forensic locksmiths or lock vendors,” said Savage. “There are experts who have been able to copy keys by hand from high-resolution photographs for some time. However, we argue that the threat has turned a corner; cheap image sensors have made digital cameras pervasive and basic computer vision techniques can automatically extract a key’s information without requiring any expertise.”
Professor Savage notes, however, that the idea that one’s keys are sensitive visual information is not widely appreciated in the general public. If you go onto a photo-sharing site such as Flickr, you will find many photos of people’s keys that can be used to easily make duplicates.