SPORTS

Ready, set, throw away the key

BARBARA RIGHTON September 11 2006
SPORTS

Ready, set, throw away the key

BARBARA RIGHTON September 11 2006

Ready, set, throw away the key

SPORTS

Canadians crack the underground sport of lock-picking just for fun

BARBARA RIGHTON

At the Riviera

Hotel on the Las Vegas strip earlier this month, Winnipeg salesman Josh Nekrep made history with a tiny tension wrench in one hand and a rake pick in the other. The venue was Defcon 14, billed as the largest underground hacking event in the world. The competition was speed lock-picking, a first for the computer-crazed Defcon, and the first time a Canadian had entered a recognized lock-picking competition. At home, as a co-founder of the hobby group Locksport International, Nekrep, 28, presides over lock-picking chapters that have sprung up in Manitoba, Nova Scotia, the U.S., Australia and Portugal over the past year. He also serves as an administrator of www.lockpickingl01.com, a how-to site that boasts a lock-picking membership of20,000 in North America—up from 7,000 in 2004. At home, he is numero uno—a guy who can open a Master padlock, the kind most people have on their garden sheds, in 1.6 seconds. At Defcon, he was nervous.

While a crowd of curious geeks—including some 50 challengers—watched, Nekrep took his place in the first 15-minute heat with five other pickers. The locks were supplied by Locksport co-founder and lockpickinglOl coadministrator Kim Bohnet, 3 3, of Camrose, Alta., a sport lock-picker and professional locksmith.

and were “not particularly difficult,” Nekrep says. But they were mounted on tiny doors, which made them

harder to manoeuvre. (Most lock-pickers prefer to hold locks in the palm of their hands.) “You had to unlock the lock and open the door to stop the timer,” Nekrep says. “There was a bank of timers set up. It was very cool.”

Nekrep never made it to round two. “I did poorly,” is all he wants to say. But his enthusiasm is undimmed. Lock-picking as a sport is still in its infancy in North America and Nekrep is excited about his plans to help run a bigger and better competition at Defcon next year. In Holland and Germany, where contests have been under way since 1997, champion lock-pickers have become celebrities worthy of the ultimate German accolade, “Master of the Universe.” Like Nekrep, the

man who is credited with starting sport lockpicking—Steffen Wenéry of Germany—began to fiddle around with locks as a kid. The fascination is the same for both of them. Like all true hackers, Nekrep says, lock-pickers just like to learn how things work.

The process sounds easy. Simply put, locks have an internal series of pins. With a tension wrench and various different picks, a picker can move up the pins and open the lock. But not all locks are created equal. Pins can vary

IN EUROPE, CHAMPIONS EARN THE ULTIMATE HACKER ACCOLADE, ‘MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE’

in number and shape. And since the lock picker is working blind, he has to learn to apply the right pressure and listen for the faint sounds of success. Manual dexterity is a given. In his business as a locksmith, says Bohnet, “you find ways to cheat.” People who have locked themselves out of their houses

or their cars, for example, want doors opened fast, not with finesse, and sometimes the locks suffer. But sport lock-pickers often exchange locks in competitions: it is a rule that the internal workings must not be damaged.

The beginners’ bible is still the 15-year-old “MIT Guide to Lock Picking,” a 48-page manual prepared by “Ted the Tool” to facilitate the student sport of “urban exploration,” in other words, breaking and entering. “This was maybe the seedy side of lock-picking,” Nekrep admits. But both he and Bohnet stress that sport lock-picking is not about committing illegal acts.

In Toronto, Const. Kristine Bacharach is sympathetic. Three years ago, she took a daylong course and got so good, “I went home and picked my front-door lock in five minutes,”

she says. Her skills subsequently enabled to open a high-rise apartment door and an elderly woman. As for the legalities, says, there is nothing wrong with picking lock, per se, as long as aficionados “do not their powers for evil.”

Far from it, says Bohnet. Not only would Locksport International eject anyone pected of criminal intent, he adds, but, “When we find weaknesses in locks, we inform manufacturers. Our influence is not great, but that has been changing.” M