Washington, October 30 : UC San Diego computer scientists have written a piece of software that can process pictures of keys from nearly all angles, and calculate the number and depth of cuts on them, which is all one requires to make a duplicate key.
"We built our key duplication software system to show people that their keys are not inherently secret," said Stefan Savage, the computer science professor from UC San Diego's 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," he added.
Professor Savage made a presentation on the new software called 'Sneakey' at ACM's Conference on Communications and Computer Security (CCS) 2008, one of the premier academic computer security conferences.
In one demonstration of the new software system, the computer scientists took pictures of common residential house keys with a cell phone camera, and fed the image into their software, which then produced the information needed to create identical copies.
In another experiment, they used a five-inch telephoto lens to capture images from the roof of a campus building, and duplicate keys sitting on a cafe table more than 200 feet away.
"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.
So far as the threat of key duplication is concerned, Savage says that companies are actively developing and marketing new locking systems that encode electromagnetic secrets as well as a physical code.
"Many car keys, for example, have RFID immobiliser chips that prevent duplicated keys from turning the car on." he says.
He suggests that people treat their keys like they treat their credit cards. "Keep it in your pocket unless you need to use it," he said.