Nigel Tolley: A report from LockCon 2013
It is now a few days after I’ve returned from an event that is likely the high point of a lockpicker’s annual events list: I am, of course, talking about LockCon 2013.
This now famous event started about eight years ago, and was, as it remains today, invitation only. This is mostly for practical reasons, due to its location, past and present.
LockCon began in old youth hostel in a small village in the Netherlands, and the hostel turned out to be somewhat limited for the cheap space that small niche events so desperately need when starting out. We now meet in a newer and larger youth hostel, one which replaced the very old (and frankly awesome) one, and the Europe-wide smoking ban means the atmosphere has changed in more ways than one. However, the essence of the event has been, and will always be - locks.
Even as a veteran of these events and as a professional locksmith I am still amazed by things we share at LockCon that others of us have never seen before. I sat for at least two hours very late (early?) into the night with a nice chap who has only been picking locks for six months, yet he has already amassed a wonderful collection of cylinders, many of which I had never seen before. (I got them all open, though my hand can still feel the hard work it did as I write.)
Many LockCon attendees give presentations, and highlights among these are often on a secret topic. This is because we have people who work for - and with - the police, forensics and sometimes even the spy services, and some feel their employers may not fully approve. Of course, in reality, they also learn new tricks which makes them even better at their jobs. The security is by obscurity - no recording or photos are allowed. That is all, as we are amongst friends.
Unrestricted items of interest abound, and sometimes you will be lucky enough to be shown a heavily restricted tool designed to make perhaps worryingly short work of some otherwise highly secure lock. Discretion being what it is, I shall not name names.
One example will suffice: you have likely heard of bump keys. What you are less likely to know is that the only reason you’ve ever heard of a bump key is due to one of the LockCon organisers “going public” about them, due to the extreme level of threat to so many people’s security.
Other highlights of the weekend are the de facto world championships for both lock impressioning and lockpicking – the “Dutch Open.”
The lock impressioning competition is relatively new as an event. This slightly odd race is to be the first to make a key to an unknown lock with nothing more than a blank (an un-cut key) and a few tools. Yes, it is possible, and I opened my lock in a shade under 20 minutes. Sadly, that was over 4 times longer than the eventual winner…
The Dutch Open - as LockCon is originally known – is a competition that started as the main event and LockCon grew from its attraction. The Dutch Open is, in some ways, still the main draw.
In previous years, Dutch Open contestants have been filmed for documentaries and interviewed by the press, and the winner is always going to face stiff competition. The format is tweaked from year to year, but the general process is designed to ensure that the people who open the most locks will always go through to the next round. Speed does count, but openings have an infinite weighting so the stopwatch only comes into it if there would otherwise be a tie.
Alas, this time around I performed poorly. The first group I was in also had some stellar performances, which would have likely knocked me out even on a good day. With three people opening six of the eight locks, and Babak of TOOOL USA demonstrating that the TOOOL USA pickset (reviewed here) is perfectly capable in the right hands, competition was fierce. He was on fire, knocking out Walter - the new TOOOL president - himself no slouch with a hook and tensioner, as well as newcomer Chris H. All were tied on locks and split only by time.
In the end, Babak too was dispatched in the semi-finals by the eventual winner, Manfred. I won’t lie - I didn’t stand and watch the finals, nor even the semis. Watching people pick locks when you aren’t taking part is possibly as boring as it can get. However, for the people taking part, I can tell you from past experience, it gets pretty tense.
After the final it was time for me to fly, literally. Hasty goodbyes to friends old and new, and we departed for the port, at speed. Next year I’ll be back.