Safe-cracking is the process of opening a safe without either the combination or key.
Different procedures may be used to crack a safe, depending on its construction. Different procedures are required to open different safes so safe-crackers need to be aware of the differences.
Some rotary combination locks can be manipulated by feel or sound in order to determine the combination required to open the safe. More sophisticated locks use wheels made from lightweight materials which reduces this vulnerability. Another anti-manipulation mechanism is serrated wheels (false tumbler notches) that make tactile techniques much more difficult. Another defence is a clutch-type driver wheel that prevents contact of the fence to the tumblers except in one position. These locks can be identified by a "click-click" feeling in the dial or by a dial that is pushed in and turned. Manipulation is the locksmith's preferred choice in lost-combination lockouts, since it requires no repairs or damage, but can be extremely time consuming due to lock improvements over the years, and is also a difficult art to master. There are also a number of tools on the market to assist safe engineers in manipulating a combination lock open. These generally fit directly on to the locks dial and assist in being able to accurately read the left and right contact points of the locks drive cam.
Some combination padlocks can also be manipulated by pulling and applying leverage on the shackle while turning each dial to determine the combination required to unlock them.
In the absence of any other information regarding the safe's combination, a combination lock may be opened by dialing every possible combination. Many combination locks allow some "slop" in the settings of the dial, so that for a given safe it may be necessary only to try a subset of the combinations. Such "slops" may allow for a margin of error of plus or minus two digits, which means that trying multiples of five would be sufficient in this case. This drastically reduces the time required to exhaust the number of meaningful combinations. A further reduction in solving time is obtained by trying all possible settings for the last wheel for a given setting of the first wheels before nudging the next-to-last wheel to its next meaningful setting, instead of zeroing the lock each time with a number of turns in one direction.
Guessing the combination
Safes may be compromised surprisingly often by simply guessing the combination. This results from the fact that manufactured safes often come with a manufacturer-set combination. These combinations (known as try-out combinations) are designed to allow owners initial access to the safes so that they may set their own new combinations. Sources exist which list manufacturers' try-out combinations.
Combinations are also unwittingly compromised by the owners of the safes by having the locks set to easy-to-guess combinations such as a birthdate, street address, or driver's license number.
A number of companies and groups have developed autodialing machines to open safes. Unlike fictional machines that can open any combination in a matter of seconds, such machines are usually specific to a particular type of lock and must cycle through thousands of combinations to open a device. A good example of such a device is a project completed by two students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kyle Vogt and Grant Jordan. Their machine, built to open a Sargent and Greenleaf 8400 lock on a Diebold Safe, found an unknown combination in 21,000 tries. Lockmasters, Inc. markets two autodialing machines that work on a variety of 3-digit combination safe locks.
There also exist computer-aided manipulation tools such as Mas Hamilton's SoftDrill (no longer in production) and Cygnus. These tools are like autodialers except they listen to the lock and, with the aid of a computer, make logical decisions like a human manipulator would.
While some safes are hard to open, some are susceptible to compromise by drilling or other physical methods. Manufacturers publish drill-point diagrams for specific models of safes. These are tightly guarded by both the manufacturers and locksmithing professionals. Drilling is usually aimed at gaining access to the safe by observation or bypass of the locking mechanism. Drilling is the most common method used by locksmiths, and is commonly used in cases of burglary attempts, malfunctioning locks or damaged locks.
In observational attacks, the drill hole allows the safecracker to view the internal state of the combination lock. Drill-points are often located close to the axis of the dial on the combination lock, but observation may sometimes require drilling through the top, sides or rear of the safe. While observing the lock, the locksmith manipulates the dial to align the lock gates so that the fence falls and the bolt is disengaged.
Bypass attacks involve physical manipulation of the bolt mechanism directly, bypassing the combination lock.
All but the simplest safes are designed to protect against drilling attacks through the implementation of hardplate steel (extremely wear-resistant) or composite hardplate (a casting of metal such as cobalt-vanadium alloys with embedded tungsten carbide chips designed to shatter the cutting tips of a drill bit) within the safe, protecting the locking mechanism and other critical areas such as the locking bolts. The use of hardplate ensures that conventional drilling is not successful when used against the safe. Drilling through hardplate requires the use of special-purpose diamond or tungsten-carbide drill-bits. Even then, this can be a time-consuming and difficult process with safes equipped with modern composite hardplates.
Some high-security safes use what is called a glass relocker. It is a piece of tempered glass mounted between the safe door and the combination lock. It has wires attached to the edges. These wires lead to randomly located, spring-loaded bolts. If an attempt is made to penetrate the safe, the penetrating drill or torch breaks the glass and releases the bolts. These bolts block the retraction of the main locking bolts. To drill a safe with a glass relocker, side, top, or rear drilling may be necessary. Many modern high-security safes also incorporate thermal relockers in conjunction with glass-based relockers (usually a fusible link as part of the relocker cabling), which also activate when the temperature of a safe exceeds a certain level as a defense against torches and thermal lances.
Drilling is an attractive method of safecracking for locksmiths, as it is usually quicker than manipulation, and drilled safes can generally be repaired and returned to service.
Punching, peeling and using a torch are other methods of compromising a safe. Peeling involves removing the outer skin of the safe.
Scoping a safe is the process of drilling a hole and inserting a borescope into the safe to get an intimate look into a specific part of the security container. When manipulation proof mechanical locks and glass re-lockers are implemented as security measures, scoping is the most practical option. One common method is called "scoping the change key hole." The safecracker will drill a hole allowing him to get his scope into a position to observe the change key hole. While spinning the dial and looking through the change key hole for certain landmarks on the combination lock's wheel pack, it is possible to obtain the combination and then dial open the safe with the correct combination. This method is common for a professional safe specialist because it leaves the lock in good working order and only simple repairs are needed to bring the safe barrier back to its original condition. It is also a common way to bypass difficult hard plates and glass re-lockers since the change key hole can be scoped by drilling the top, side, or back of the container.
Brute force methods
Other methods of cracking a safe generally involve damaging the safe so that it is no longer functional. These methods may involve explosives or other devices to inflict severe force and damage the safe so it may be opened. Examples of penetration tools include acetylene torches, drills and thermic lances. This method requires care as the contents of the safe may be damaged. Safe-crackers can use what are known as jam shots to blow off the safe's doors.
Most modern safes are fitted with 'relockers' (like the one described above) which are triggered by excessive force and will then lock the safe semi-permanently (a safe whose relocker has tripped must then be forced, the combination or key alone will no longer suffice). This is why a professional safe-technician will use manipulation rather than brute force to open a safe so they do not risk releasing the relocker.
Penetrating radiation such as X-ray radiation can be used to reveal the internal angular relationship of the lock's internal mechanism to deduce the combination. Modern safe locks are made of lightweight materials such as nylon to frustrate this technique, since most safe exteriors are made of much denser metals. The Chubb Manifoil Mk4 combination lock actually has a lead shield surrounding part of the lock to defeat such attempts to read its wheels.
Tunneling into bank vaults
Large bank vaults which are often located underground have been compromised by safe-crackers who have tunneled in using digging equipment. This method of safe-cracking has been countered by building patrol-passages around the underground vaults. These patrol-passages allow early detection of any attempts to tunnel into a vault.
A number of inexpensive safes sold to households for under $100 use mechanical locking mechanisms that are vulnerable to bouncing. Many cheap safes use a magnetic locking pin to prevent lateral movement of an internal locking bolt, and use a solenoid to move the pin when the correct code is entered. This pin can also be moved by the impact of the safe being dropped or struck while on its side, which allows the safe to be opened. One security researcher taught his three year old son how to open most consumer gun safes. More expensive safes use a gear mechanism that is less susceptible to mechanical attacks.
Movies often depict a safe-cracker determining the combination of a safe lock using his fingers or a sensitive listening device to determine the combination of a rotary combination lock. Other films also depict an elaborate scheme of explosives and other devices to open safes.
Some of the more famous works include:
- A Retrieved Reformation (1909)
- The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
- Rififi (1955)
- The Cracksman (1963)
- You Only Live Twice (1967)
- Who's Minding the Mint? (1967)
- Olsen Gang (1968–1998)
- On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) - Auto-dialer
- Cool Breeze (1972)
- Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
- No Deposit, No Return (1974)
- Thief (1981)
- Vabank (1981)
- Blood Simple (1984)
- Short Circuit 2 (1988)
- Die Hard (1988) - Drilling, guessing electronic passwords
- Disorganized Crime (1989)
- Breaking In (1989) - Drilling, hammering (a cheap safe), nitroglycerin explosives, torch-cutting (with this method the contents were destroyed), social engineering
- Hudson Hawk (1991)
- Killing Zoe (1994)
- Heat (1995) - Drilling, physical sabotage of external security systems
- Safe Men (1998)
- The Newton Boys (1998)
- Blue Streak (1999)
- Small Time Crooks (2000)
- Ocean's Eleven (2001) - Social engineering, physical sabotage of security systems
- The Score (2001) - Drilling, thermal lance, internal explosion. This method shown at the climax of the film was tested on an episode of MythBusters (see below).
- Panic Room (2002) - Drilling, brute force, physical destruction of electronic security systems
- The Italian Job (2003)
- Bad Santa (2003) (2003)
- Brainiac: Science Abuse (2003) – The safe was eventually cracked by a high-explosive round fired using a Challenger 2 Tank. The contents were destroyed.
- The Ladykillers (2004)
- The Bank Job (2008)
- Burn Notice (2007–)
- Dom Hemingway (2013)
Three safecracking methods seen in movies were also tested on the television show MythBusters, with some success. While the team was able to blow the door off of a safe by filling the safe with water and detonating an explosive inside it, the contents of the safe were destroyed and filling the safe with water required sealing it from the inside. The safe had also sprung many leaks.
- Richard P. Feynman as told to Ralph Leighton; edited by Edward Hutchings (1985). "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!": adventures of a curious character. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-01921-7.
- "Vogt, Kyle. "Autodialer - Kyle Vogt's Blog". Retrieved 2010-04-06.
- "Safe Lock Servicing" (PDF) (Press release). Lockmasters, Inc. Retrieved 2007-05-19.
- "Cygnus". Retrieved 2010-04-18.
- Marc Weber Tobias. "Unsafe Gun Safes Can Be Opened By A Three-Year Old". Forbes.
- "Kids Can Open Gun Safes With Straws and Paper Clips, Researchers Say". WIRED. 27 July 2012.
- How to break into most digital safe's. YouTube. 1 March 2012.
- "Crimes and Myth-Demeanors 1". Mythbusters. Season 4. Episode 54. July 12, 2006.
- "Crimes and Myth-Demeanors 2". MythBusters. Season 4. Episode 59. August 23, 2006.