Are keys more secure than passwords?

07 February 2017

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Question

Stella - In a time where I can access my bank account with a small sequence of numbers and unlock my phone with a fingerprint, why is it I still have to find a physical set of keys every time I want to enter or leave my home? Are keys more secure than their digital equivalent? Is it easier to hack a system than pick a lock? Or will I soon be entering my home using retinal scans and fingerprints.

Answer

Chris Smith put Stella's query to Tim Revell...

Tim - To answer Stella, she doesn’t have to use a set of keys if she doesn’t want to. I have a friend, for example, who has a really cool setup. When he’s on his way home his heating slowly starts to heat up because his phone knows he’s on the tube on his way back home. And then, as he slowly starts to get towards his door, his lights come on automatically because he’s starting to get inside his wifi zone. Then as he gets to his front door, of course he doesn’t have a standard key turning lock, he’s got a number pad that he just types in the number and opens up the door.

This stuff is already here but the reason why a lot of people still have keys is because they’re installed on a lot of doors. How many people do you know that have actually bothered to change the locks on their doors? And these things are still a bit more expensive. A lock is a very simple mechanical device that you turn and a bolt goes through the door.

A lot of office buildings have these sorts of things where you can use a retina scan or you can use a fingerprint so this technology is here. So if Stella really wants it, she can have it.

Richard - What about power cuts or the wifi going down? I have a stereo system round the house which is brilliant. You show off to friends and everything - look what I can do on my phone - I can do all this. And then the wifi goes down and then it’s rubbish.

Tim - This is a problem but it depends to what extent. So, if this is actually for the lock on your door probably that doesn’t consume that much power anyway and you would expect it to have a battery that can backup the system should you need to still get in. Quite often these systems also have a lock that you can use with a key as a backup if you need it. A bit like car keys - a lot of car keys are beepers but there’s normally a way to get into the side of the car (a keycard or something) and there’s a little key that you can use somewhere. Yes, we need electricity for this stuff, but it’s not normally much so it’s not too bad if the system goes down.

Richard - It’s not zombie apocalypse-proof?

Tim - No… but neither are regular locks! The thing with all of these things is doors and locks are reasonably secure, but if someone wants to get in your house they’re probably going to break a window. There’s no fingerprint sensor on those so most people don't bother. And a lock is often made of steel and your door is probably made of wood. So you can just saw straight through past that.

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