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Just about everyone has keys for their cars, where they live and work, for vehicles, and other locks and at some point we may need duplicates or to replace lost or broken ones. Even more critically, if we get locked out of our cars or where we live we may need to urgently acquire the right key which may mean calling a locksmith with potentially high costs. That scenario is what gave Greg Marsh the idea to start a company in New York to make it easier to obtain pre-registered keys on demand for the most common brands of locks.
Five years ago his girlfriend could not find her key and was locked out of her apartment in New York at 2:00 A.M. She had no choice but to call a locksmith who charged her a lot of money to get in. So Marsh conceived of the idea that ultimately resulted in a company called KeyMe. That enterprise now has more than fifteen hundred automated kiosks in drug stores and supermarkets throughout the United States. They can produce keys, vehicle key fobs, and access control tags on-demand at a reasonable price. It was a simple idea: allow a consumer to scan keys into the system at the kiosk or on their smartphone for later retrieval with a fingerprint or username and password at any machine, anywhere in the country.
He told me when I visited his facility in Manhattan that they have made millions of keys each year and are growing rapidly. Their unique concept is not favored by locksmiths, understandably, and it incorporates some features that cannot be realistically offered by the traditional lock shop or normal key machines. Keys can either be immediately produced at the kiosk or they are cut at the KeyMe office and then sent through the mail, based upon the uploaded information. The machines have a fingerprint reader that can link your biometrics to key registration to assure proper identification to retrieve the keys. The concept is simple and clever: once a key is scanned, it can be replicated at any of their machines, anywhere, assuming the specific key profile is locally available.
The question is whether this is a good idea, and are there flaws in the logic of the concept? More importantly, are there potential security issues by storing your keys with a third party? Watch my interview with Greg Marsh.
The CEO of KeyMe stressed some critical distinctions and advantages between their approach and that of a traditional locksmith or DIY store key machine:
There are key copying machines and kiosks in a lot of locations including all the DIY and hardware stores. Some of these require an employee to make them work; others are self-service. Almost all of them make a copy by physically tracing the target key that is linked to and drives a cutting wheel that interacts with the properly selected blank key. While key copying was traditionally performed mostly by locksmiths, that model has changed during the last fifteen years, especially for conventional non-high security keys that require minimal skill and commonly available blanks. Each manufacturer supplies unique key blank designs for its cylinders so that the keys for one lock will not work in a different brand, or even the same manufacturer with slightly different designs. This is one of the problems that often only a locksmith can address: there are hundreds of thousands of different profiles and keyways and all of the non-lock shops that cut keys can stock only a limited number of common blanks. In this country, there are about forty very common keyways and blanks, and probably the two most recognized are Schlage and Kwikset. The low-security versions are the easiest to copy and virtually every key machine has this capability locally.
The ability to cut high-security keys is much more limited and restricted and often requires the expert services of a locksmith and expensive and more sophisticated key machines. At present KeyMe can only cut two brands of high-security keys: Medeco and Mul-T-Lock. Neither of these can be produced on-demand but must be mailed to the buyer. While these two companies offer many different styles and levels of high-security keys, KeyMe has very limited capabilities and can only reproduce patent-expired keys at the present time.
KeyMe machines can cut about twenty common residential and commercial keys on-demand at their kiosks, including Schlage, Medeco, Mul-t-Lock, American, Kwikset, Weiser, and Yale. Unlike a real locksmith or lock shop, even among the available brands, the key blanks on-site are limited and must often be mailed to the consumer.
The KeyMe system relies upon optical scanning of target keys. A sophisticated algorithm, based upon artificial intelligence, interprets the data and drives a key cutter. This is how they are able to store and tie a key to a customer. While KeyMe spent a lot of money on research to develop and exploit this technology it is not perfect, and requires a quality control team at the company to review keys for compliance to Kiosk capabilities.
I tried scanning keys from four popular lock manufacturers in the U.S. (Schlage, Mul-t-Lock, Medeco and Kwikset) at three different kiosks. Two of the keys did not work properly and would not open their locks. The information was sent to KeyMe for analysis and they agreed there were explainable scanning problems and issues in each case. While they understood their system has some limitations and required tweaking, the fact remains that two of the keys did not work. Would the result have been different had I taken these keys to a locksmith? The answer is probably yes, but there is no guarantee of accuracy at a lock shop either.
Keys for high-security locks present far more challenges for the KeyMe machines, for good reasons. Blanks for high-security cylinders are patented and controlled which means they are only supposed to be available from authorized dealers. They are engineered to make key copying more difficult, which is why consumers buy them. That paradigm is inconsistent with most traditional key copying techniques and machines. KeyMe can copy patent-expired keys from Medeco and Mul-t-Lock but having said that, relying on optical scanning of high-security keys does not guarantee reliability of the process because of the integration of angled or dimpled cuts which are unique security parameters and are much more difficult to scan than physically copy.
The KeyMe system can also duplicate some vehicle transponders and RFID tokens, which makes the machines unique. But this also presents a security issue if someone obtains access to keys or key fobs for a period long enough to scan and replicate them at a kiosk location. My condo uses an RFID tag for entry. It is the older 125 KHz system so the KeyMe read it, and for under $20 I had a duplicate in the mail in two days that worked perfectly.
I spoke with Greg Marsh about the security implications of their approach to copying keys. He maintains that his company offers far more security than a lock shop or any other location that cuts keys because of their requirement for an address for shipping as well as a credit card for payment, and fingerprint for retrieving scanned keys. A photograph is also taken off the consumer at the machine.
I drilled down into their real security procedures based upon how I had copied keys at their Kiosk. While they are trying to provide a higher level of audit than a normal locksmith, I pointed out what I perceived as some real flaws in their system. Why? They do not keep photographs of the consumer and they do not keep mailing address data once an order is shipped although they will not ship to a box address. They do not verify credit cards as to whether they are debit or credit and account ownership. In my case, I used an Amex debit card that I bought for cash so there was no traceability back to me. They also have no way to verify the name of the customer that is entered into the machine. Their fingerprint reader is a great idea, but in practice I found does not work reliably from machine to machine, so I had to enter my username and password to access stored keys.
I wanted to know what an experienced locksmith thought about the Kiosk concept so I interviewed George Aguero, a colleague and forty-five-year locksmith in the Miami area who owned a large locksmith operation and serviced commercial, government and residential customers. Watch my interview with him about KeyMe.
If you encounter a KeyMe kiosk and decide to scan your keys, here are the benefits and potential risks of using a machine rather than a professional locksmith:
The concept of an on-demand key machine at multiple locations is good for consumers, assuming the copies that are produced are highly accurate. Retail establishments favor the idea because they do not want to deal with the required service for a low cost-low profit item. The reality is that other than some key cutting of popular keys, a locksmith is required for their expertise to provide a wide array of services that cannot be performed by a KeyMe or similar machine. It will be interesting to see how this business model progresses in the future.
The real question is whether it is important for consumers to be able to pre-register their keys for later retrieval in case of loss or a lockout. While that premise sounds good, I question whether the business model is realistic, especially if you are willing to trust a third party with information about keys to your home or office, even though the company assures us that the data is secured. How many consumers lose their keys and are locked out, and have immediate and convenient access to a KeyMe kiosk to generate a duplicate?
While KeyMe advertises they are a “Locksmith in a Box” they are not. They have built their company based upon a very narrow slice of the locksmith business which may comprise perhaps ten percent of locksmith revenues. The services of a professional locksmith are required to perform many complex tasks; copying of keys is only one of them.
Insofar as the instant ability to cut keys while shopping at the grocery or drug store, there is no question as to its convenience. The critical issues are accuracy, availability of different key profiles, and security. If you just need a key copy for one of the common lock brands in the U.S. then KeyMe should work well. If you are worried about losing a key and live near a Kiosk, then you may want the peace of mind of scanning your key into the system for a later lockout. That is what KeyMe is banking on.
I wear two hats in my world: I am both an investigative attorney and physical security/communications expert. For the past forty years, I have worked investigations,
Car Key Cutting Machine For Sale
I wear two hats in my world: I am both an investigative attorney and physical security/communications expert. For the past forty years, I have worked investigations, both criminal and civil, first for government agencies and then private corporate clients. These cases have mainly involved major insurance fraud, heists, technology related crimes, exploits of communications systems, and other offenses, some terrible and others more mundane. I also work for many of the major lock manufacturers in the world and run a team that figures out how to compromise these locks in seconds, then fix them. My story was pretty much summed up by Wired Magazine in a feature article in 2009, when I was dubbed the "Keymaster." I have always believed that full disclosure of security vulnerabilities in locks and related systems should be the rule, unless it involves national security, in order that the consumer, business sector and government understand potential risks. I solicit your input at firstname.lastname@example.org and your comments on my blog. My security website is www.security.org and my security blog is in.security.org
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