Women in Locksport Series: Grace Nolan

Our second interview in our “Women in Locksport” series comes from Grace Nolan, a New Zeland native who has given talks at security conferences such as CrikeyCon, OzLockCon, Linux.Conf.Au, and CHCon. Grace was previously a web developer but is now currently a security engineer at Google working on the detection team in Sydney.

I first was introduced to Grace when she emailed me the previous year in search of information relating to women’s role in the history of locksmithing. I was so excited to not only hear of another female lockpicker, but one who was actively trying to research the history of women the field. She is a fabulous speaker and sheds light on the history of lockpicking in her talks. We will include some of her talks down below following the interview.

Christine: When and how did you start picking locks and what got you interesting in it?

Grace: The first time I encounter Lockpicking as a sport was at a hacker conference (Kiwicon in Wellington, New Zealand). There was a competition to get yourself out of handcuffs as fast as you could. I was too shy at the time, but a couple of years later (at the same con) I ended up hanging out with one of the locksport enthusiasts at a bar and had the chance to pick some handcuffs. Before I knew it, I was picking double locked thumb-cuffs with a pick between my teeth. It was pretty fun. Then a few years later I was asked to start submitting talks to security conferences. I wasn’t really sure what to talk about, I had been inspired by another talk on the history of hacking, and by some podcasts – so I submitted a talk about the History of Lock Picking. It was about this time that I got my own lockpicks and started picking for fun.

Christine: Do you have any stories or instances where lockpicking come in handy or has saved the day?

Grace: Almost! I started picking a friend’s door when they locked themselves out, I wasn’t there for very long before their sister turned up with a spare key. It was a bit disappointing, to be honest.

Christine: What are your favorite kinds of locks to pick or things to do locksport related?

Grace: I like hanging out with some of my locksport friends and look at the mechanisms of antique locks and high-security locks. I am not a collector of locks, so I love getting the chance to check out other people’s collections. Sometimes friends lend me padlocks they have custom pinned, and it’s pretty fun to pick those.

Christine: What does lockpicking mean or represent to you? (For example, the community and how groups of people can work cooperatively to share and spread information and knowledge has always been a big part of locksport for me.)

Grace: My answer has two parts. The first part is that the talk on History of Lockpicking was really popular which meant I got to connect with a bunch of people from both the infosec and physical security community. This talk was probably a pivotal moment in my career, so locksport holds special meaning for me in that way.

The second part is about what I learned when I was doing research for the talk, I enjoyed seeing the overlap in ideas of physical security and information security. As an example, I like this quote from Hobbs: “The spread of the knowledge [of the vulnerability of locks] is necessary to give fair play to those who might suffer by ignorance. It cannot be too earnestly urged, that an acquaintance with real facts will, in the end, be better for all parties.” And I think that this idea holds true in the information security sector too – that we are better off with an awareness of security flaws, and that this pushes us forward to strive for more secure systems.

*Here, Grace is referring to A.C. Hobbs, a New York locksmith who started what was dubbed by newspapers as, “The Great Lock Controversy” in 1851. You can read more about Hobbs and how he used his lockpicking skills to ruin the reputations of his competitor’s locks and defunct the idea of the “unpickable lock” here.

Christine: You are from New Zealand and living in Australia. These are two places very far from where Bob and I live. Do you find that lockpicking as a hobby is becoming more mainstream or is it very unknown about or not understood among the general population?

Grace: I would say that it’s an uncommon hobby in the general population, but in the hacker scene there’s a strong community. I think there are some very passionate people who bring their Lockport passion to these conferences. I would say that it’s common for there to be a locksport village or someplace where you can sit around picking locks with others and the hacker cons in Australia and New Zealand.

Christine: I was very excited to meet you and learn about another female lockpicker. Do you know many other women in locksport? And/or why do you think there are so few women in the locksport community?

Grace: There aren’t many, that’s for sure. There was a woman who I met at a Locksport conference last year who is a locksmith, she’s looking at doing research in physical security and was recently accepted into a PhD program. It’ll be great to have some more research out there in the world about physical security. Her and I talked about how little representation women have in the locksmithing trade.

I think that lock picking and physical security is something that my female friends would be interested in it, but they don’t have exposure to it. I have a childhood friend who I knew would be super into lock picking, so I gave her a pick set for her birthday.

Christine: Have you had any instances where being female has been either a positive or negative impact?

Grace: Hmm.. I think being a women speaking about lock picking has had a positive impact on the community. We know that representation makes a difference to under-represented groups. I think it sends an implicit message to other women that it’s an interest they can pursue, and that it’s okay to share that interest with others.

Christine: The last time we spoke, we discussed the history of women in lockpicking and locksmithing. Can you highlight some of your findings for us?

It’s bleak, unfortunately. I wasn’t able to find any evidence of women involved in locksmithing. Locksmithing has been predominately a family business, and so I have little doubt about the involvement of women in the business. Locksmithing is a trade (as opposed to something academic), so there isn’t very much documentation of the evolution of it. The most documentation out there is from patents. I have heard that in the beginning women couldn’t submit patents, and I believe that the overall number of patents submitted by women is incredibly low – around 7% or so. I think the reason for this is that women typically have more responsibilities and so they don’t get the time to do creative work. Men get the time and space to do this creative work because all of the tasks deemed unworthy of their time fall upon women to do. This uneven distribution of tasks and unpaid labor still exists today.

Christine: Do you have any advice for beginners or someone who is thinking about learning how to pick locks?

Grace: If you want to try it out but don’t want to invest just yet- find others who are interested, go to hacker cons that have a locksport village.

If you are happy to try it out on your own, you can buy a lock pick set- get something really simple. There are some out there with 20+ tools, don’t get bamboozled by the choices! I think a set with 5 or so tools is fine. And then get a cheap clear lock so you can see how the pins move when you pick it. Then test out your skills on some cheap padlocks from a supermarket.

Christine: Is there any other message you’d like to add to about lockpicking?

Grace: It’s fine if you only do a little bit of lockpicking every now and then. It’s a fun hobby, and you are still valid as part of the community, even if you don’t practice picking very often.

And always make sure you have consent to pick locks if they don’t belong to you!

Thanks so much for joining us for our second interview in this series. Please check back with us as we have more interviews lined up and will continue to shine a light on the wonderful women in locksport.

If you are a woman in locksport or know of one, who would consider being a part of our series, please contact us through our contact page.

You can check out our other interviews in this series here.

Grace Nolan’s “Condensed History of Lock Picking” at Linux.Conf.AU 2017.

Grace Nolan’s “Extended Condensed History of Lock Picking” at OzLockCon 2017.

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