It's too bad Skip Gates didn't have Schuyler Towne's cell number on that fateful day last month. If he did, the Somerville-based lockpicking champ likely could have gotten in to the good professor's home in no time at all, and a national controversy (and international beer summit) might have been averted.
Towne, a graphic designer by trade, says his friends often enlist him to help when they forget their keys. "I've done a few lockouts just in the last couple of days," he notes.
That kind of freelance work keeps him sharp for the sport in which he's quickly established himself as one of the top competitors in the country. The clean-shaven 25 year old with brown hair down to his shoulders counts himself a member of a community of hobbyists who share an affinity for defeating locking systems. It's called locksport, and clubs devoted to the pursuit can be found all over the globe.
It's not just noir-ish safecrackers and quick-hit B&E felons who enjoy the thrill of conquering without keys. There's a good amount of overlap between the locksport and hacking communities. In fact, locksport maintains a presence at popular events like the Hacker's on Planet Earth conference and the popular annual hacking confab known as DEFCON. Towne himself picked his first lock at the former in New York in 2006.
And while the members of locksport clubs may take pleasure in beating security systems, they don't condone the natural extension of the pursuit. Illegal entry is a big no-no among this crowd.
"There's an extraordinary ethic," says Towne, who is a co-founder of Toool US (the American chapter of the Open Organization of Lockpickers) and the executive editor of Non-Destructive Entry magazine. "You don't pick locks that you don't own, [and] you don't pick locks that anyone one has to depend on, because the potential always exists for breaking a lock. It's not a great potential, but it exists."
Towne may be going against this credo when he helps desperate friends get in their homes, but he says he never picks his own locks.
"I rent," he says. "The locks on the doors aren't mine." He notes that the temptation can be there, occasionally, but setting guidelines for himself helps him to stay out of trouble. "If I don't do it then, I won't do it sometime when I want a bagel and Dunkin Donuts is closed."
So where does he pick?
In the past, Towne, whose expertise is in speed-picking low-security locks, has entered locksport competitions in both America and Europe, including the most prestigious event in locksporting, the Dutch Open (now called LockCon). And he has twice (in 2007 and 2008) won the top prize in the main lockpicking event — sometimes referred to as the American Open — at DEFCON.
Towne's exploits are well-known among local lockpickers, who say he has an unmatched passion for what he does. "[T]he laundry list of lockpicking contests he's won . . . is a testament to how well that enthusiasm and dedication has served him," says Boston-area hobbyist Eric Schmiedl in an e-mail.