Hacking Just Got Physical: Real-World Security in a Digitally Dissolved World

I’ve not written much here for a while… hopefully people have caught up with pieces I’ve published elsewhere, and know that I’m basically head down at the moment finishing off a new book, Getting High. I’m really excited about it. You can hear me talking about it when I was over in LA in the summer.

Anyway, this article piqued my interest the other day – a piece in Tech Crunch about a 3D-printed ‘bump key’ that can open some pretty complex locks. Your front door lock look like this? Then you need to pay attention:



Let’s be clear: this isn’t (yet) printing a bespoke key to fit your lock. But what this demonstrates is that a physical security system we have relied on for hundreds of years is soon to become obsolete. In other words, you’re not just going to need to ramp up your digital passwords, you’re going to need to upgrade your locks.

I think this is interesting because this is about the bleeding of the digital world into the physical. Anyone can go online, find the template for one of these bump keys, print one out and start opening a huge number of locks. Hacking just got real; it just hit the physical world.

What this means is that we are approaching a situation where anything can be copied. There are 3D printers coming to market that can print biological structures, that can print metals and mixed materials. Currently, if you listen to an album you might have bought it or downloaded, legally or illegally. But what if you go to a gig and you’re no longer sure if the person performing actually is Prince? What if they are a hologram, or a sophisticated automaton, or a clone?

This bleed from the digital into the physical is just beginning – but it’s going to throw up huge numbers of questions about things we have taken for granted. The ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds are dissolving into one another. If a work of art can be copied molecule for molecule, what will the word ‘original’ mean any more? If a key is no longer secure, what will the word ‘security’ mean any more?

I’m not sure I can answer that yet. But I’m going to be watching what locksmiths say about all this. The answer, clearly, cannot be smart-cards for house entry… they are even more open to cracking. Interesting times ahead.


3 responses to “Hacking Just Got Physical: Real-World Security in a Digitally Dissolved World”

  1. Gary Manders

    The security implications of this technology are fascinating for a criminologist. Crime rates are falling, but will the figures increase as a result of these developments? The crimes will be less detectable with a key to open someone’s house. How will the security industry respond?

  2. That’s an excellent point. I wonder if the response will be trackable everything – each thing we have chipped to allow us to track it. But clearly this has *huge* privacy implications. The current chips on the market I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole… but who’s to know someone hasn’t sewn one inside my bag without me knowing?

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