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THE SIDEBAR: MARC WEBER TOBIAS

A Personal Comment about the Gun Lock Story

Two years ago, we posted an alert about the poor quality and insecurity of gun locks. The media reported the story in an in-depth television news story. The result: absolutely nothing changed. The manufacturers continued to produce cheap locks that afforded no protection. Standards were not changed by the State of California which certifies cable and trigger locks as secure to protect kids. Retail outlets continued to sell junk locks. And more alarming, law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. still offer poor quality gun locks to the public for free, believing that they are designed properly.

There have been many adverse comments to my posting of videos with the article on in.security.org and on engadget.com. Many think that a simple warning would have been sufficient without the videos. History has shown that this is not the case.

The reality is that if you simply warn parents that gun locks are dangerous because they create a false sense of security, the warnings will be largely ignored as they were two years ago. In fact in 2001 a security alert was published by the Consumer Product Safety Commission on this subject. Shortly thereafter, ABC did a television report on the dangers of these locks and how easily they could be compromised. Again, nothing happened. It was business as usual.

A few months ago our local sheriff showed me the gun locks that they distribute as part of the Operation ChildSafe program (funded by the Department of Justice). I decided it was time to revisit this issue. If a police department hands a gun owner a lock then, it impliedly represents that the lock is secure and will keep kids safe from guns. Our Sheriff had no idea that these locks could be so easily compromised. When he learned otherwise he took immediate action to warn every consumer that received these devices through his department.

So, for everyone that feels that our report should not have been published, I respectfully disagree. Simple warnings would accomplish nothing, as borne out by past events. This was reinforced by my conversations with the National Shooting Sports Foundation. They have distributed 35,000,000 of these cable locks and tell people they will protect kids from access to weapons. Worse, they actually believe that the standards that California passed seven years ago are sufficient to keep kids safe up to the age of seventeen. They cite the American Society of Testing and Materials as the ultimate authority on standards and the fact that these locks passed ASTM tests.

Their concern could be paraphrased thusly: “We have never had a problem with these locks so there is no problem.” I don’t question their motives, just their understanding of how these locks work.

Before I released the report I spoke with the California DOJ Firearms Division about their standards. They said that they believed that they were quite sufficient to keep kids from accessing weapons, repeating that the locks had been analyzed by designated testing laboratories and found compliant with the standards. It was the same story line.

In my view, the real issue is the standards and the manufacturers that produce cheap locks that do not even meet the minimal requirements promulgated by the DOJ. So, if this is an important issue (as I believe it is), then how do you get everyone’s attention so that something positive will occur?

Some say it is irresponsible to show how to compromise these locks. I considered very carefully whether to demonstrate the problems with these products or just write about them. I came to the conclusion that perhaps the only way to get the regulators to act was to show them what they apparently did not understand, and at the same time to graphically warn parents about the hazards of using these devices. Perhaps they might put pressure on the agencies to make needed changes.

And yes, there is a risk that kids will see this report. But I thought that would be far outweighed by the potential positive results that might occur. And frankly, it is clear that if a kid wants to access a weapon he will, regardless of whether there is a report showing him how to do it or not. The difficulty in compromising these locks is minimal and that is the entire point of the article.

The fact is that any adult that uses one of these locks as the sole protection of a handgun is grossly negligent. If they compound the problem by either locking a loaded weapon or keeping ammunition close by, then I would submit they could be held criminally liable if a kid uses the weapon.

So the conclusion I reached with regard to airing the videos was based upon the following premise: if the locks are as secure as represented by the DOJ, NSSF, and manufacturers, then why would they be concerned about showing how these locks can be compromised?

After all, they are all saying that the locks WILL protect a weapon against access by a kid, (no matter how ludicrous that argument might be) and that the standards are sufficient.

My contention: Either these locks are secure or they are not. You can’t have it both ways. And if they are not then laws should be changed so that the locks actually do what they are supposed to do.
Finally, the information that was presented has been on the Internet for quite some time as almost everyone knows. An incredible amount of material has been published about bumping, including padlocks. So kids already are aware of that method of bypass. The fact that bump keys are available on the Internet for the Master cable lock should alarm everyone. I and others have been raising this issue for the past year. In fact, I submitted draft legislation to the Postal Inspection Service six months ago to close the loopholes in the postal regulations to stop the trafficking in bump keys on the Internet.

And what about the ability to cut these cables? I would dare say that every reader would look at one of these locks and laugh at the absurdity of the ostensible protection that they afford. A pair of pliers or fourteen inch bolt cutters from Ace Hardware will sever any of these cables and everyone, including kids, knows it. Even Targus figured it out when I wrote the article last year about their much publicized armored computer lock that uses an almost identical approach as the gun cable lock.

So should we just keep quiet and continue to promote the failed concept of “security by obscurity”? I don’t think so, for the same reason that I am challenging the standards set forth by Underwriters Laboratories, BHMA, and ANSI with regard to high security locks and the ability to compromise some of them in well under the minimum time standards set forth for forced and covert entry in UL 437 and ANSI 156.30. I would submit that the risk could be far greater for reliance on some of these standards and for the defective or deficient design of some of these locks than for the compromise of gun locks.

I have never believed it was prudent to publicly demonstrate methods of covert bypass unless there was a valid reason to do so. That material is left to the multimedia edition of my book. I have never once shown such techniques in the media; only to law enforcement and security professionals. But when bypass techniques are so simple that anyone can accomplish them in a few seconds, I believe it is vastly different. In my view it enhances everyone’s security if they have a full understanding of the simplicity of the methods.

The issue raised in the gun lock story is about responsible disclosure with regard to matters of security. There has always been a legitimate debate as to whether disclosure promotes or places security at risk by publishing “secret” or more to the point, “unknown” information. The reality is that there are no more secrets. The Internet took care of all of that. And if I had simply posted a warning about the insecurity of these devices or there had been a news story written about a child that was hurt or killed as the result of his ability to bypass one of these locks, you can be sure that someone would have posted detailed information about the method of compromise. Welcome to the global information world.

There are two sides to every story and if this one has sparked thoughtful debate about the disclosure of security defects, then I would submit that the article has accomplished its purpose. Many parents have written to me after reading this article, not to complain but to voice concern about the locks they have relied upon and to ask what they should replace them with.

If you believe that material on gun locks should not have been released, then you will surely have an opinion regarding the next alert about the insecurity of small Fixed Base Operations at our airports, and the security issues it raises.

MWT

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