Thursday, 20 Nov, 2008 Technology
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Software to Make Physical Keys Based on Images

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Researchers from the United States managed to develop a software algorithm able to make a real key based on its image, regardless of the angle at which the key was photographed or distance. Scientists named their project Sneakey and its initial goal is to alarm people randomly placing their keys in the open or showing pictures of their keys online.

Professor Stefan Savage of University of California, San Diego (UCSD), noted that today a lot of people place the images of their credit cards online but with their name and the number of the card greyed out. He outlined that the same attention should be paid to keys. It is worth mentioning that Professor Savage played an important role in developing the algorithm.

Together with his students, Professor Savage surfed the Internet for free images of keys. The team gathered a collection of thousands of images, found on various photo sharing sites, including Flickr. All the pictures were clear enough to make copies of keys. The algorithm is also able to replicate keys using images taken by a cell phone camera.

In order to demonstrate the abilities of the software, scientists placed a camera with zoom on a distance of 60 meters away from a key. In the first attempt, the software was able to make an 80 percent accurate copy of the key from the picture. In just three tries (which takes about 5 minutes) scientists managed to open every lock. The replication procedure is rather easy. It takes the program about 30 seconds to figure out the ridges and grooves on a photographed key. However, it takes more time to actually cut the key, about 1 minute. Scientists were able to open locks that are most often used in the United States, reports ABC News.

"I think that this work would be really easy for someone else to reproduce. Someone familiar with signal processing, mat lab, and image transformation could do it in two days if they are good," said Savage.

Scientists proved that it is very easy to decode keys. Most keys that are sold, usually have only 4 to 6 different numbers. The number means how many ridges or valleys the key has.

"The premise is that a key holds some kind of secret that lets you unlock something. But it's a very funny secret; it's a secret that can easily be seen," the professor said.

According to Marc Weber Tobias, who works as an attorney and security expert and who dealt with locks since he was a boy, the current project is really important in outlining the disadvantages of conventional cylinder locks. However, he is concerned with the fact that today there are millions of cameras with high resolution and almost anyone standing at a distance of, let's say 1km, can take images of keys which would later be replicated.

"This isn't the biggest security threat that you might face. But you should only take your keys out when you are going to use them," outlined Savage.

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