Technology is a valuable tool for increasing security, but occasionally technology can create a threat. An example is the threat 3D printing technology poses to one of the most mature security technologies, mechanical locks and keys. The ability of 3D printing to duplicate keys presents new challenges for lock manufacturers, and new vulnerabilities to end users. Keys that could previously only be duplicated by skilled thieves can now easily be copied using off-the-shelf technologies and information widely available on the Internet.

In this case, technology offers a solution, too. A new kind of key cannot be duplicated by 3D printing. Ironically, it is manufactured using 3D printing techniques.

UrbanAlps Stealth Key

A Swiss company called UrbanAlps has introduced the Stealth Key, a key that is designed and manufactured from the inside out. The mechanical elements that enable the key to uniquely open a matching lock are hidden away inside the key beneath a pair of narrow ledges, where they are not susceptible to being scanned and duplicated using 3D printing. UrbanAlps offers a range of cylinder locks and keys based on the Stealth Key concept. A high-tech padlock incorporates additional security features such as a shrouded shackle to avoid cutting, anti-drill capabilities, and resistance to lock picking.

Stealth Keys are made using 3D printing and a laser to fuse together successive layers of metallic powder added in a manufacturing process called "successive layer melting." Manufactured from the inside out, complex internal features are "printed" and then covered over later with a solid layer that shields the complex inner workings from being duplicated.

Unveiled at the Intersec show in Dubai earlier this year, the Stealth Key is aimed at retailers, hotels and other commercial entities. It is less expensive than other technologies designed to shore up the security vulnerabilities of 3D printing, such as keys that combine both mechanical and electronic components. The company’s website touts “simple and affordable key copy protection.”

Unveiled at the Intersec show in Dubai earlier this year, the Stealth Key is aimed at retailers, hotels and other commercial entities

3D Printing Challenge

Locks and keys are among the oldest security technologies, dating back to Egyptians and the Romans. Their value has been proven over the centuries and they continue to provide security in many applications, even in today's high-tech environment.

However, 3D printing presents a challenge. 3D duplication became a high-profile problem in 2015 when 3D printable computer-aided design (CAD) files for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) master keys were published on the Internet. Those are the keys used by airport security staff to open private suitcases for inspection. The files allow the keys to be duplicated and used to successfully open TSA-approved locks.

The hacking of security systems is nothing new—most electronic security systems have been hacked, or have the potential to be hacked in the future. Increasingly, security involves an ongoing one-upmanship between the good guys and the bad guys – the programmers and the hackers, the white hats and the black hats – whether the technology is computer systems or even the locks and keys that have been around for centuries.