Keys to the City

[Image: The “keys to the city,” via the New York Post. One key description reads: “What you could do: Take over the subways”].

A set of “master keys” to the infrastructure of New York City popped up on eBay last month, leaving many public commentators and city officials alike concerned for the safety of the metropolis.

It’s “what a terrorist might call a dream come true,” the New York Post suggests:

The set consists of five keys that would allow control of virtually any elevator in the city, could knock out power to municipal buildings and skyscrapers, darken city streets, open subway gates and some firehouse doors and provide full access to 1 World Trade Center and other construction sites.

After the keys were sold to a buyer who was actually “an undercover Post reporter,” an investigation found that “most of the keys did, in fact, work.” And they can do quite a lot:

The keys include the all-purpose “1620,” a master firefighter key that with one turn could trap thousands of people in a skyscraper by sending all the elevators to the lobby and out of service, according to two FDNY sources. And it works for buildings across the city.
That key also allows one to open locked subway entrances, gain entry to many firehouses and get into boxes at construction jobs that house additional keys to all areas of the site.
The ring sold to The Post has two keys used by official city electricians that would allow access to street lamps, along with the basement circuit-breaker boxes of just about any large building.

One thing I mentioned last month during the “Applied Topology” lecture at UC-Berkeley was the potential to produce 3D replicas of keys based simply upon visual documentation of the target key set.

For instance, research by Tamara Denning, Cynthia Matuszek, Karl Koscher, Joshua R. Smith, and Tadayoshi Kohno at the University of Washington—see this PDF—has suggested that “household robots,” in their words, could be used someday to commit home burglary.

In a situation as notable for its comedic potential as for its criminal ingenuity, belligerent hackers could thus wirelessly take control of your “household robots”—Denning’s group chose the Robosapien, Rovio, and Spykee for testing—and surreptitiously gain access to information about your house. Room layout, location of motion sensors, whether or not a certain door has been locked at night, if anyone is even home, or, more directly, where certain things, like jewels, cash, pharmaceuticals, or a handgun, might be kept.

The most plausible scenario the team came up with involved something like a robot still-life, an American Gothic with keys: the Robosapien would simply grab ahold of your house keys and the Rovio would then sit there filming it.

[Images: From research by Tamara Denning, Cynthia Matuszek, Karl Koscher, Joshua R. Smith, and Tadayoshi Kohno at the University of Washington].

This cinematographic duo would thus pose there looking at each other, under the control of hackers huddling in a van somewhere wearing Stadium Pals, long enough that they could 3D-map the keys from the ensuing image feed and then have accurate copies produced. Thus would your house be robbed by robot.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: surely someone could now produce, given enough dedication and perhaps a metal-based 3D printer, hypothetical copies of these “keys to the city” and shortly find him- or herself clicking open locked subway doors, turning off streetlights, stalling elevators, even redirecting construction site equipment to produce off-kilter towers in midtown? Using nothing more than a few glimpses of the keys found online and some late-night field-testing, the keys are cloned and begin to proliferate.

After all, this is now the era of 3D-printed crime: 3D-printed machine guns, 3D-printed bomb triggers, 3D-printed burglar’s tools.

3D-printed lock-picking kits, with near-universal access to the city, from elevators to subway cars to private apartments, can only be, worryingly, a few years away.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for the link!)

5 thoughts on “Keys to the City”

  1. It's not a few years away. The technology to copy a key from even a distant blurry cell phone photo has been around for years.

    But with these keys scanned flat, each serving as a size reference for the each other… Forget 3D printers. All you need is a metal file and a little patience.

  2. i dunno why all this fear mongering "terrorists dream come true" and "tie up ambulance response" etc. … i think the New York Post is a bigger terrorist than the person offering these keys up for sale (for collectors, young lovers, curious people and artists – i presume – there are other channels for fencing terroristisch goods, for better money)

  3. I had a snotty Fireman buy a fireplug wrench from me once. I'd forgotten what it did – my father had passed away more than thirty-five years earlier, leaving it with me – and it's not like they're hard to replicate with a jar opener.

    You just have to realize that these keys are for convenience, not security.

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