Lock picking in Computer Science

I incorporated lock picking in my 6th grade computer science class many years ago. It began by accident – I was making a point about security. I wanted to teach the kids to question what digital security was, and used a padlock as an analogy. The kids all agreed it appeared secure, and yet in seconds I was able to open it. I’m not sure if the kids got the analogy. But I definitely got their attention!

Each year since, kids have asked me to teach them lock picking, and I’ve promised to show them IFF we can cover the other material I want to cover with time left. It takes about 10 minutes to explain how locks work and show them how to pick them. I have a number of easy locks for them to practice on, and it takes most kids 5-15 minutes to pick their first lock. I generally have about half the class learn to pick (they do this on their own time), and I usually have a handful who really develop their skills. This year I had three develop enough skill to pick a typical front door lock, which meant they spent many hours in practice!

I have had many questions about teaching lock picking, though, so I thought I’d revisit it here and address some of the questions that come up.

  • Lock picking is seldom if ever used to break into houses. I’ve discussed this with several locksmiths, and they all agree.
  • Parents are intrigued. I’ve had many ask me about lock picking, but I’ve never had any express concern. I’ve also had a number of parents tell me how excited their kids were to learn to pick locks, and that they had bought their kids locks.
  • I make sure to emphasize the importance of ethical picking with the kids. Not because of rules, but because they are good people. To drive this home, I have them swear a solemn (well, somewhat comical-they are sixth graders) oath before teaching them.
  • I set them some goals. There are easy locks, so they can experience of hearing the satisfying click of a picked lock. That’s the most important. I also have a 3D printed medal for one of my harder locks. That’s enough for many of them to continue when it begins to get more difficult.
  • I firmly believe that anything that inspires a kid to learn something on their own is worthwhile and important. As much as I like the curriculum I’ve developed, I’d so much rather the kids develop the ability to learn on their own, driven only by their own passions. This is the primary reason I’ve kept the lock picking around.
  • It really is easy to get started. I picked up the very basics at DEFCON, and I’m still basically a beginner. With a bit of time on YouTube and a very small investment, I think anyone can pick their first lock in well under an hour. One on one, I can usually show somebody how to do it in under 10 minutes.