As both a locksport enthusiast and a professional red teamer, I spend a good deal of time thinking about locks. One fascinating subset of locks is master keyed systems. These are primarily used by large businesses to create a hierarchy of locks and keys: individuals can have a key that works for the building front door and their own offices, managers can have keys that work on any of their subordinates’ offices, janitors can have keys to their assigned floors’ offices, while security guards and maintenance can have keys to any room.
Depending on how these systems are implemented, they may suffer from an inherent weakness. Often, the bitting (key cuts) used for the top master key (e.g. the one used by security) cannot be used in any individual user key. For example, if the top master key code is 6-3-4-2-2, a valid user key may be 4-1-6-4-5, but could not be 4-1-6-2-5. This means that given the codes for enough user keys, an attacker could eliminate most/all possibilities except for the master key bitting, thereby decoding the master key.
This may sound like it would take a large number of keys to find the master (especially for keys with 6 or 7 cuts and 7+ possible cut depths per position), there is another feature of many key systems that helps narrow the space: MACS. MACS are the Maximum Adjacent Cut Specification for a given brand/model. These are standards that say a key cannot go from a very small cut in one position to a very large cut in the next position, as the key could be too weak and might break off in a lock (or pocket, or purse).
Similar to MACS, some systems also restrict user keys from being within a certain offset (e.g. +/- 1) of the master. In such a system, 4-1-6-1-5 might also be invalid with the above example master key.
For this kind of attack, the attacker would either need to covertly view users’ keys and eliminate cuts, or work with insider co-conspirators to view their keys. But would the number of keys needed to be viewed be feasible? To answer this, I created a computer model that simulates the attack and displays the number of keys needed for that attack. Simply input the specifications for the key system in question, plus the number of runs desired for the model, and it will display the average, minimum, and maximum number of keys needed across the test executions.
You can get the code from https://github.com/mburrough/MasterKeySim.