SOMERVILLE, Mass.—Schuyler Towne took a gleaming brass lock, inserted a small bent piece of flat steel into the keyhole and gently applied finger pressure. Then he slid in a lockpick and manipulated the mechanism until it swung open, in less than 20 seconds.
Towne, 26, is not a burglar. He's a lockpicking instructor and part of a growing competitive movement called "locksport" that involves learning the theory of locks, analyzing the devices and figuring out ways to quickly defeat the systems without destroying them.
While lockpickers thrive on the intellectual thrill of beating all sorts of locks, they oppose attempts to use the skill for mischievous purposes and have laid down universal ethical guidelines: "You never pick a lock you don't own and you never pick a lock that's in regular use," Towne said.
Some lockpickers observe a code of responsible disclosure by providing manufacturers information on weaknesses they discover in locks they defeat -- just like responsible computer hackers do when they detect security flaws in software.
Still, the sport worries some law enforcement authorities, like James Pasco of the National Fraternal Order of Police.
"I'm sure that they are having a good time and I'm sure that the vast majority of people engaged in it are just puzzle solvers of a sort, (but) you run the absolute risk of educating criminals who might be inclined to pick locks for illegal purposes, you know," Pasco said.
Babak Javadi of the U.S. chapter of The Open Organization Of Lockpickers, or TOOOL, disagrees. He says locksport requires enthusiasts to invest a lot of time and patience to learn the skills. What's more, crooks are likely to use crowbars and saws to quickly pick locks because they do not care about surreptitious entry, he said.
The practice of lockpicking is generally legal if the picker owns the lock or has explicit permission from the owner to pick it. But possession, creation and distribution of lockpicking tools may be illegal, depending on the location.
Locksport fans compete in several formats, including head-to-head contests that determine the fastest lock picker. In the so-called Locksport Wizard, each contestant is given a burlap sack containing an identical set of locks and is required to blindly pick them using only tools they have put in the sack.
In other challenges, participants have to pick their way out of handcuffs before attempting to defeat a set of locks. There also are competitions to disassemble locks and reassemble them properly.
"This is why I pick: I love competing," Towne said. "Nothing makes me happier than sitting down across from another person and attempting to open a lock faster than they can."
Towne's group meets once a month in a Somerville garage converted into a studio for artists. Winners at its contests take only one prize -- pride in being the best lockpicker.