To start to answer this question, we have to remember that a fingerprint padlock is still a padlock. So before we dive into fingerprint padlock security, let’s start by reviewing padlock security in general!
Everyone knows about padlocks and I’m sure most people own at least one padlock, right? It’s a product that has been around for many years and is used to secure anything from a small bag or suitcase all the way up to securing important objects and even buildings. Given the plethora of uses, it’s obvious that padlocks will come in various sizes and levels of security. This is an important point to consider when looking at padlock security.
As with any product, the bigger and higher quality the padlock, typically the more secure it is. But consequently, the more expensive it is. Padlocks in general can range from a few pounds to hundreds of pounds. When determining whether a padlock is secure or not, you first have to ask what it will be used for and whether it is secure enough for that use.
Sometimes when used on low value objects, a padlock is there as a deterrent more than anything else. So if it stops an opportunist trying to steal it, you may deem it as secure. However, if a padlock is on a high value object, how secure it is depends on how hard it is to break into it.
What I’m trying to say here is, you wouldn’t put a £5 padlock on a shed with high value tools. Equally, you probably wouldn’t purchase a £100 padlock just to use for your gym locker, as it simply wouldn’t be necessary. So when deciding whether a padlock is secure, consider the market and uses that the padlock is designed for.
Now, before we get to how people may try to break into any of these padlocks, lets review the methods of opening padlocks.
Historically, a padlock would have a key just like any other lock. With smaller padlocks, you get smaller keys and as we’ve all learnt at some point – they are very easy to lose! A lot of high security padlocks do still use keys though. The downside? Whoever has the key, can open the lock.
Next, we have the more convenient combination padlock. These typically come with a 4-digit code that you have to enter by spinning 4 number dials around. You can also get these with a dial on the face of the padlock, kind of like a clock, that you turn left and right to the correct numbers. So, you can’t lose the key anymore, but you do have to remember a code and anybody who knows the code can open the lock.
A common complaint I hear is using these padlocks in the dark, as you can’t see the numbers to enter the code. Also, let’s face it, the smaller combination padlocks are very fiddly in general!
Finally, as technology has caught up with the lock industry, we have biometric padlocks. These padlocks typically use a fingerprint to unlock, which isn’t just convenient, but also secure, as a fingerprint is unique to the individual. No losing a key, no forgetting a code, no fiddling around to get the numbers to line up.
It is also worth mentioning smart padlocks that use an app to unlock as well, although this isn’t the focus of discussion in this article.
So, let’s assume somebody wants to break into your padlock, regardless of the opening method. You have two types of people who may do this, opportunists and criminals. Opportunists typically search for the easiest thing to steal and try to do so. They will try lots of different locks and if they don’t open easily, they will move on to the next one.
Ultimately it becomes a question of how long it takes to break into that padlock. The longer it takes, the more secure it is.
Criminals work differently. To put it bluntly, if they want to break into your padlock, they will. It’s pertinent to say at this point, that no padlock is indestructible. Again, it comes down to how difficult it is for the criminal to break in; this is the measure of how secure it is.
Now when it comes to non-destructive methods of opening a padlock, there are a few ways opportunists may try and break in. If successful they can typically relock the padlock and people wouldn’t know it had been broken into. Let’s take a look below:
Non-destructive Methods of Breaking into a Padlock
Using a Shim:
This is the quickest and most common approach. A shim is a small, thin piece of metal that somebody will try to push into the shackle opening. They are trying to push the pin back that holds the shackle in the locked position, with the aim of releasing the shackle and unlocking the padlock.
Another common method is to use a plastic hammer to repeatedly hit the side of the lock. The aim here is to shock the lock so that the pin holding the shackle temporarily dislodges, releasing the shackle and unlocking the padlock.
Picking (Key padlocks):
As with any key based lock, there is a chance it can be picked if people have the correct tools and knowledge. Essentially thin metal prongs are inserted into the keyhole to try and push all of the pins, so they align and release the shackle.
Cracking the code (Combination padlocks):
By applying some tension to the shackle, it is sometimes possible to slowly turn each number and feel a slight release when the right one is aligned. This process is repeated based on how many dials there are until the shackle is released.
Magnets (Fingerprint/smart padlocks):
Smart padlocks typically use a motor to move the pin that releases the shackle. Sometimes by repeatedly moving a strong magnet over the motor, it can manually turn it and pull the pin, thus releasing the shackle.
Destructive Methods of Breaking into a Padlock
Some people have questions over the security of our fingerprint padlocks, saying that bolt cutters or angle grinders could easily get it off in seconds. The reality is that this is true, but the same could be said for any padlock! With enough time and effort, destructive methods will break a padlock of any kind. So now let’s look at destructive methods:
Dismantling the padlock:
With some padlocks, you can prise the front or back of it off with a knife or screwdriver. This gets you inside but doesn’t mean you can unlock it. You typically have to get through multiple layers of metal, plastic, glue and remove lots of screws before getting to the mechanism and pulling the pin to release the shackle. In poor quality padlocks you can do this very quickly, in better quality it is very difficult and takes a lot longer, usually putting the opportunist off before succeeding.
A common method you may find is by putting two spanners into the shackle opening and pulling them together. The idea is to put enough stress on the shackle that it snaps it in two. The reality is that this isn’t as simple as it looks and requires a lot of force, especially when padlocks have hardened steel shackles. However, it is possible in some circumstances.
This one is simple, put the shackle between the bolt cutters and hope you’ve been going to the gym enough cut it in half. In reality, a hardened shackle makes this difficult with small bolt cutters, but big ones will succeed every time. You can buy closed shackle padlocks, these make it very hard for bolt cutters to get hold of the shackle. Adversely, they give you less room lock it to anything.
I’ve heard this one many times and yes, an angle grinder will easily cut through pretty much any padlock. If a criminal is walking around with an angle grinder, there isn’t much you can do. Although, it is very loud!
The reality is that when buying a padlock, you need to think about the level of security that you need, for the purpose it’s intended for. Any padlock can be broken into if a criminal wants to, so you have to bear this in mind. If you are trying to secure something that you can’t risk losing, you should look at more secure methods.
The security of a padlock is gauged by the difficulty and time it takes to break into it, not whether it can be broken into. It also doesn’t particularly matter whether it’s a key, combination, or a fingerprint lock either, the same principle applies.
To answer the question posed in this post, a fingerprint padlock is no less secure than a key or combination padlock. In fact, it’s more secure given that only the person with the fingerprint can access it. But that answer can vary massively depending on the quality of the fingerprint padlock in question. If it can pass the fundamental non-destructive break-in methods, then it’s about as secure as it can be before getting into the realm of high-security padlocks over £100-200.