Scientists duplicate keys with help of zoom lens

October 30th, 2008 - 3:27 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Oct 30 (IANS) Computer scientists can now duplicate keys without looking at them; all they need is a photo or an image of the object, thanks to a new software. They successfully decoded the image of a key, lifted from a distance of 195 feet with a cellphone camera, fed it into their software which then produced the information required to create copies.

In yet another example, they used a five-inch telephoto lens to capture images from the roof of a campus building and duplicate keys sitting on a café table more than 200 feet away.

“We built our key duplication software system to show people that their keys are not inherently secret,” said Stefan Savage, professor at the University of California San Diego’s (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering, who led the student-run project.

“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,” informed Savage.

The bumps and valleys on your house or office keys represent a numeric code that completely describes how to open your particular lock. If a key doesn’t encode this precise “bitting code”, then it won’t open your door, the researchers said.

“The program is simple. You have to click on the photo to tell it where the top of the key is, and a few other control points. From here, it normalises the key’s size and position.

Since each pixel then corresponds to a set distance, it can accurately guess the height of each of the key cuts,” explained Benjamin Laxton, co-author of the paper who recently earned his master’s from UCSD.

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

Savage noted that the idea that one’s keys are sensitive visual information is not widely appreciated in the general public, according to an UCSD release. He presented this work Thursday at the Conference on Communications and Computer Security 2008, one of the premier academic computer security conferences.

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

“Many car keys, for example, have RFID immobilizer chips that prevent duplicated keys from turning the car on,” said Savage. He advised people to treat their keys like they would a credit card. “Keep it in your pocket unless you need to use it.”

The researchers have not released their code to the public, but they acknowledge that it would not be terribly difficult for someone with basic knowledge of MatLab and computer vision techniques to build a similar system.

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