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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Picking locks can get you into trouble or make you a star.

Unidentified Man: Still trying that deadbolt; just crossed three minutes. There's the deadbolt.

NORRIS: That is what is called a locksport competition; the fastest picker wins the glory.

Andrea Shea of member station WBUR spent some time with one of the stars.

Mr. SCHUYLER TOWNE (Locksporter): Nice. It's not actually (unintelligible).

ANDREA SHEA: As he manipulates a skinny pick to defeat a lock, 25-year-old Schuyler Towne wants to make one thing very clear: Real locksporters abide by a strict code of ethics.

Mr. TOWNE: Never a pick a lock you don't own, and never pick a lock that's in regular use.

SHEA: Towne owns a heap of locks, and he's organizing them to build a lock library in Somerville, Massachusetts. He hopes people will use it to study and conquer the devices' tiny inner workings. Like computer hackers, Towne has an affinity for cracking security systems.

Mr. TOWNE: I pick low to mid-security locks very, very, very, very quickly, as quickly as I possibly can. I have my tools custom-made so that I can pick locks faster.

SHEA: Faster so Towne can beat his rivals in lock-picking contests. He competes at hacker conventions such as Def Con in Las Vegas, where he even presented a lecture titled Locksport: An Emerging Subculture.

Mr. TOWNE: In ironic but not uncommon twist, I locked myself out of the hotel room this morning.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

SHEA: Of course, Towne didn't pick that lock because he wants people to understand locksport. It's popular in other countries like Holland, which hosts a big contest called the Dutch Open. But in America, Towne says, locksport is an underground pursuit. He hopes to change that.

Officer Jim Pasco wishes he wouldn't.

Mr. JIM PASCO (Executive Director, National Fraternal Order of Police): Well, you know, I'm unaware of any sport like, let's pretend we robbed a bank.

SHEA: Pasco is executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, and he takes issue with a sport that glorifies skills associated with breaking and entering.

Mr. PASCO: It would be a great place for a criminal, or a would-be criminal, to educate him or herself on how to gain access to premises not his or her own.

SHEA: The fact is detailed lock-picking videos are all over YouTube. And while there is a shady side to recreational picking, some people in the security industry defend it because it reveals vulnerabilities.

John Loughlin designs locks for a company called Stanton Concepts. When he finishes a prototype, he lets locksporters take a whack at it first.

Mr. LOUGHLIN: It provides a platform, a test platform, and sort of an open critique of an idea, so that things can be changed and tweaked and improved before a product might go to production.

SHEA: And that, Loughlin says, helps his bottom line. And while lock-picking can be good for business, the most obsessive locksporters aren't in it for the money. Instead, they say they live for the chance to solve these tiny metal puzzles in competition, where they race to open any lock faster than anyone else.

Unidentified Man: Because that would be inconspicuous, to be blindfolded and cuffed...

SHEA: For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

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