Duplicating keys from a photograph

Researchers show off software that lets you duplicate keys from just a photograph of a key.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills

Screenshot of Sneakey software that calculates the dimensions of keys in photos for duplicating them. Ben Laxton

Nowadays you don't need a locksmith or even lock-picking tools to get past a locked door without a key--you can do it using software, a photograph of the key, and a key-cutting machine.

Researchers from the University of California at San Diego have developed software called "Sneakey" that enables anyone to make duplicates of keys without needing a sample key.

At the Association for Computing Machinery's Conference on Computer and Communications Security three weeks ago, the researchers demonstrated the system using photographs from Flickr and photos taken as far away as 200 feet using a high-powered telephoto lens, according to an article in Scientific American.

"There is a five-digit number that represents all of the information in a standard key," said UC San Diego computer science professor Stefan Savage. "You type that code into a key-cutting machine and it makes a perfect replica."

Savage supervised the research conducted by graduate students Kai Wang and Ben Laxton. The software analyzes a photograph of a key and calculates the dimensions of the key's grooves, known as the "bitting." The system works best with keys made from common brands.

Savage said he does not plan on commercializing the technology.

At the Defcon hacker conference in August researchers discussed how they were able to duplicate keys to high-security locks by making a photocopied image of the key and then transferring that image onto a plastic sheet and cutting the shape out.