School of Law

'What can Victorian lock-picking contests tell us about web security fears?'

4 February 2016 | Katie Hempshall

Online security has made big news in recent times, with hackers taking down websites of well-known brands- testing the security limitations of the virtual realm. This violation of the cyber world has provoked the race to defeat software viruses and improve security online. Yet such concerns and activities may have a surprising historical precedent: Victorian ‘lock-picking’ competitions.

London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 was one of the first examples of such contests, uniting manufacturers and workmen from rival lock-makers in a bid to break one another’s security devices. Such exhibitions often simulated risks faced by product users, including an attack by skilled burglars. Whilst financial incentives were sometimes offered, perhaps the most valuable reward was the viewed success or failure of your latest device.

David Churchill of the University of Leeds whose research is published in History Workshop Journal, writes that these competitions can provide insight into our present day attitudes to security in the 21st century. Churchill argues that we continuously need to update antivirus software to stay ahead of the latest threats, which is similar to that of lock-picking, constantly striving for improved lock designs. ‘Hack-in’ conferences also illustrate a parallel, where hackers and security experts meet to discuss security weak spots and test computer systems competitively.

Hence we would be naïve to believe that fearing security online is a completely new phenomenon, as Churchill argues that “we can trace our modern views of these issues back to the Victorian period.”

The full article can be found in the BBC History MagazineWhat can Victorian lock-picking contests tell us about web security fears?’ 

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