Marc Tobias has been picking locks since he was 15. One of his first experiences in the trade came when he went into a local locksmith in Denver and asked to pick the store’s toughest lock as a challenge. After initially being dismissed, the store gave him the lock and said he would never be able to pick it.
“Well, about 30 seconds later I said, ‘Excuse me, I asked for a difficult lock to open, because this one I just opened,’” he said.
Now, with his expanded understanding of security — having written seven books on crime and lock picking and being a security columnist for Forbes Magazine — he’s looking to teach Pitt students what he knows.
Tobias, his partner Tobias Bluzmanis and Security Labs — their company, which works with lockmakers to test their locks on anything from safes to gun locks — are joining up with the Swanson School of Engineering to open the new Pitt Security Engineering Lab. The lab offers students a space to work with locks provided by Security Lab’s clients — including major corporations such as Kwikset — to figure out how to both break the locks and change them to make it more difficult to do so.
Security Labs’ website states the goal of the new lab is to collaborate with a digital security lab in Paris to analyze devices that transmit data wirelessly, searching for security vulnerabilities. These devices can lead to serious breaches as well as significant legal liability for manufacturers. The lab will act as a space to teach students the basics of offensive hacking to analyze hardware, a key field as locks become increasingly digitized.
The lab will be located in Benedum Hall on the third floor and be used in conjunction with the course Product Realization, taught by Pitt professor Eric Winter. The course is designed to take students from an initial idea or concept to some form of a prototype, according to Winter.
“This class, in all the time that I’ve taught it anyway, and even stretching back before that, has always been about trying to solve a problem and come up with something that would work in the real world,” Winter said.
The class is structured so students can work in groups of three or four to solve real-world issues. Some of their tasks involve troubleshooting system sensors and communication equipment and designing systems that allow businesses to monitor major sources of energy and resource consumption. The course, which is only available to seniors and graduate students, has anywhere between six and 10 projects going at a time and involves minimal lecturing, which Tobias and Winter say can help Pitt students adapt to the work environment.
Winter has taught the course for four years, saying student interest has never been higher, even if some are still unclear on what the course does.
“I’ve had lots of inquiries from people saying, ‘What’s your course about? I thought you were a product development course?’ And I tell them, ‘Yup, it is, but it just has a strong security component to it now, and you come work on that, you get to do a little bit of everything,’” he said.
The skills acquired in Winter’s class offer both immediate and long-term benefits, according to Tobias. Already, Security Lab’s clients have discussed potential summer internships for students in lock factories, which could segue into a job upon graduation.
“We have a situation where the engineering community in the security industry is aging out. And as they age out, they’re kind of concerned that the ones that are coming in behind them don’t have the benefit of all the experience and all of the tricks and talents,” Winter said.
Tobias said he and his partner knew this was a largely untapped field in the academic community and that there were many employment opportunities within it. After speaking with multiple universities, they chose Pitt because the University was willing to waive intellectual property rights over the student’s work on the locks. This was a must for Security Lab’s clients to work on projects with students, as they won’t give students an inside look at the products’ problems if they don’t have the rights to the solutions.
“We finally figured out the best way to do this is to work with [Winter] and teaching his course and have the students work real-world projects,” Tobias said. “We don’t do theoretical stuff. These are all projects — or for the most part projects — for our clients.”
The lab — funded entirely by Security Labs — will have test equipment, fabrication equipment, analysis, magnification equipment, key machines and will offer high-tech video conferencing to speak with Tobias and Bluzmanis.
According to Winter and Tobias, interest in the class is high, which could affect the future of the lab and the course. Right now, there is only one class per semester, and it has a maximum of 30 students. If demand rises enough, though, Winter said Pitt could potentially do a second seating or open it to undergraduates.
The program will continue to expand and develop, and Tobias said while speaking to deans at the University, one of the ultimate goals is to have a degree in security engineering, as well as specific certifications. Many students, such as Vishal Jagannathan, a senior majoring in bioengineering, expressed cautious interest in the course.
“I’d definitely take it if it’s a few credits. I wouldn’t choose it over any course required to graduate or anything, but if I could fit it into my schedule, I’d definitely take something like this,” Jagannathan said.
Tobias and Bluzmanis held an event Feb. 21 to teach students about Winter’s course and allow students to try their hand at lock picking. Geoff Wells, a junior majoring in civil engineering, said he enjoyed the demonstration and came because of the allure of breaking locks.
“I like mechanical things and gizmos and stuff like that, so I’m still interested in that. So I wanted to come here and kind of learn about locks,” he said. “I’ve always thought lock picking and safe cracking were cool. I see it in the movies a lot but never actually get to do it.”
Others, such as Anna Tomani, a fifth-year student majoring in chemical engineering, were attracted to the program because of its implications in their real lives.
“I got locked out of my apartment a few weeks ago and tried to pick my lock and then jammed the door,” Tomani said. “Then I saw this and thought it was kind of fitting.”