Monday, 5 January 2015

What Back to the Future got right about locks in 2015

Its 2015! Happy New Year! And what better way to start 2015, than with a story about Back to the Future... and locks. Everyone else is doing it - Back to the Future stories that is - e.g see here. That's because 2015 is the year that the 1989 movie 'Back to the Future' (with all of its cool future gadgets and stuff) was set in.

Many journalists have been writing about all the gadgets in the movie and seeing if they exist now. They've been asking the questions, 'what did they get right? and what did they get wrong?'. So we're doing it too, but with a focus on locks.

So here is the Back to the Future lock in the image below. Yes, there was a future lock.

Of course anyone who has seen the movie knows that to open the door you hold your thumb up to the pad where a lock usually is. There is no knob, or leverset, or anything to turn on the door to open it.

So did Back to the Future get these fingerprint door lock technology right? - in a word "Yes!"

Fingerprint door locks, otherwise known as Biometric locks, are not especially new. For example here is a 2011 review of Biometric locks you can buy for your home at Amazon for between $150 - $400.  Biometric locks have been used in banks, schools, large office buildings all around the world over the last five to ten years or so.

So if fingerprint locks have been around for a while, and if they're affordable, and if they're being used to secure buildings all around the world, then why aren't they in the majority of people's homes in 2015, like Back to the Future eluded too? Probably for the same reason why the old metal key has survived for so long, and that is 'metal keys are perceived as being safe, where as anything else is perceived as not being safe, or in fact is not safe'.

There are well known ways to get around fingerprint biometric authentication, from creating false fingers (with prints from gelatin used in Gummy Bears), using good quality photographs or even photocopies of fingerprints to fool scanners, or the old Hollywood action movie favorite 'removing a finger from those with access rights'. 

So back in 1989 when Back to the Future was made, we probably hadn't seen then any action spy movies then with people getting their fingers cut off to open biometric locks, or we hadn't read any real life stories (like the one we referenced above) about people really getting their fingers cut off to open the locks.

The biometric technology was relatively new back in the mid to late eighties - the US Army was testing the use of fingerprint scanners in banking in 1984, and regulations were being set out for law enforcement use of fingerprint identification in 1986. So there was not a chance yet for those frightening 'finger cut off to open biometric lock' stories to be etched in our subconscious, simply because biometrics technology had not been used in locks back then.

Of course high resolution digital camera's weren't around in the mid-eighties either (which is now used to hack the biometric locks).

The other assumption the Back to the Future writers/producers probably made at the time (which is still true today) is that over time the costs for new technology comes down (e.g you can buy a smartphone now for only $29). So they probably thought that by 2015, the costs of fingerprint locks would've come down to the same price as metal key locks.

One other thing that the Back to the Future guys did get right back in 1989, was that AT&T would be selling locks in 2015. E.g see our post from last week which discusses the smartlocks that AT&T are selling as part of the Digital Life smarthome product. That's a great call - surely not many people back in the eighties would have ever thought that AT&T would be selling locks in 2015.

And finally, one thing the writers/producers of Back to the Future didn't see coming was the proliferation of smartphones, and how in 2015  we would be using smartphones to open locks.

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