Scientists Duplicate Keys Using Only Photos

    UCSD scientists have developed a novel software program that is able to duplicate a key using only a photograph, without actually needing the physical key.

    “We built our key-duplication software system to show people that their keys are not inherently secret,” computer science professor Stefan Savage said. “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.”

    The technology allows the scientists to duplicate the “bumps and valleys” on a key that represent the specific numeric code unique to the key.

    Savage presented the findings of the student-led project to the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Communications and Computer Security last week.

    In demonstrations of the process, computer scientists were able to create identical copies of a common residential key from a picture taken with a cell phone and from a photograph of a key sitting at a table 200 feet away.

    “This idea should come as little surprise to locksmiths or lock vendors,” Savage said. “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.”

    To protect against the possible threats key duplication technology poses, Savage warns that people should treat their keys like they would treat their credit cards by keeping them in their wallet or pocket until needed and making sure pictures of their keys aren’t posted online.

    “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,” Savage said. “While people generally blur out the numbers on their credit cards and driver’s licenses before putting those photos online, they don’t realize that they should take the same precautions with their keys.”

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