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Lock Blog

A resource for consumers, locksmiths, and security professionals

Why TSA Locks Are So Problematic

by Taylor March 7, 2022

When packing for a trip, you may have considered putting a luggage lock on there to maximize your travel security. You may have done some research, learned of “TSA locks,” and wondered: how does a TSA lock work?

Do you need TSA-approved locks? Are they approved by the TSA because they’re more secure? Do they actually prevent crime? How does a TSA lock work physically?

The answer to the first question is, no, there are no requirements for what kind of lock you put on your luggage. You can choose whatever you want, or, of course, go with no lock at all.

But are they a good idea? Do they actually prevent crime? To answer these questions, let’s look at how luggage theft happens in more detail.

How does a TSA lock work?

  1. When Luggage Is Stolen
  2. When Luggage Is Open
  3. The Master Key Leak
  4. What You Should Do

When Luggage Is Stolen

What causes thieves to steal from luggage? Do luggage locks defeat or discourage them? How does a TSA lock work to prevent crime?

This is a hard statistic to find because many thefts are never solved, and many more thefts are never reported. When looking at what thefts are reported, however, there are a few things that you can learn.

So how does a TSA lock work in this context? To understand whether or not luggage locks are effective, you need to be looking at who is stealing from luggage. Is it master lock pickers? Those who come prepared? Petty thieves, who don’t know anything about locks? Confused innocents, accidentally taking the wrong bag at the carousel?

Well, as it turns out, according to a 2017 study, many people stealing from luggage are airport workers and members of the TSA.

Once again, the exact percentage is unknown, and they obviously don’t make up every instance of luggage theft, but they’re very common thieves.

When luggage is stolen by airport patrons who may be traveling with lockpicks, it’s usually at the baggage carousel. These people take the entire bag. Locks don’t mean anything to them. Taking specific items from bags after opening locked luggage is a crime that’s occasionally committed by airport patrons but is generally a TSA and airport worker crime.

This is opportunity-related. You’ll generally supervise your bags at all times until you hand them over to the airport workers. After that, they’re the only ones who can really open them without police around. So how does a TSA lock work to stop them? Well. It can’t, by definition.

According to an interview, the TSA has tried to rectify this by having their workers monitored and supervised. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to crime rings where everyone is in on it.

So TSA locks are not going to deter certain criminals. Don’t think about non-TSA locks, either, because they can legally break them to search your bags.

Of course, the TSA doesn’t make up every theft, so what about regular thieves? Do locks deter them? How does a TSA lock work when you don’t have a master lock?

There haven’t been many studies on what kind of bags are targeted, so whether or not locks deter thieves is unknown. There’s one really important thing to note, though: the pen method.

If you want to open a zipper but can’t for whatever reason, all you need to do is jam a pen into the zipper and pry it open. No need to use the slider. And how does a TSA lock work to prevent this? Well. You know, it doesn’t.

If a thief knows about the pen technique, there’s not much any lock can do, TSA-approved or otherwise. I guess thieves that don’t know this technique wouldn’t steal a pack with a lock on it. So luggage locks might provide the illusion of security. That’s at least a little valuable.

When Luggage Is Open

How often is luggage opened by the TSA? Is getting a TSA lock over another lock worth it?

According to the TSA, they hand-check 10% of luggage. They check around 1.1 million bags a day, so that’s roughly 110,000 bags being opened by the TSA daily.

However, this doesn’t mean that your bag has a 10% chance of being checked. Bags are hand-checked based on the contents inside, and if you don’t want your bag to be hand-checked, all you need to do is make sure that you’re not packing anything that’ll set off the alarm.

You can find a list of banned items on the TSA website. This includes: 

  • Flammable liquids
  • Aerosols
  • Hazardous liquids
  • Explosives
  • Minor firecrackers
  • Electronics intended to heat up/catch fire (like curling irons or vapes)
  • Medical devices
  • Replica explosives
  • Live coral or fish
  • Airbags
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (yep, it’s still banned).

And how does a TSA lock work to help the TSA? It allows them to open the bags to throw these items out. However, these banned items aren’t generally what the TSA finds when they open checked luggage.

Often, the TSA has to open luggage because someone packed a large metal object, blocking the full view of the inside. Large electronics also sometimes set off alarms.

Dense organic items like peanut butter or large amounts of toothpaste can also trigger alarms and cause a hand inspection. So can books and magazines with glossy pages. These look weird to the machines.

If you don’t want the TSA to open your luggage, try putting these items in your carry-on bag rather than your checked bag.

You should also keep in mind that a manual inspection isn’t going to up your chances of theft. If a TSA agent wants to open your bag for illegitimate purposes, they’re not going to wait for alarms to go off. How does a TSA lock work against these thieves?

That being said, if you already have a non-TSA lock and aren’t planning on packing any of these items, you probably have nothing to worry about. Keep in mind that sometimes it’s unclear what sets off these alarms, though.

The Master Key Leak

It would be unethical to talk about TSA locks without mentioning the master key leaks of 2014 and 2015. After all, how does a TSA lock work at all if the keys have been leaked?

In 2014, The Washington Post uploaded a photo showing seven of the eight TSA master keys, all produced by Travel Sentry. It wasn’t long until people took the image and began 3D printing copies of these keys. The picture was shortly taken down and is now hard to find, but files for these keys are not. The single TSA lock produced by Safe Skies wasn’t in this leak.

So, okay, that’s bad, but it was several years ago, didn’t involve every master key, and they’ve probably now made a bunch of new master keys, right? Problem solved?

Not exactly. This leak gave a group of hackers an idea. They asked themselves a question: how does a TSA lock work like data encryption?

Hackers Nite 0wl, Johnny Xmas, and DarkSim905 leaked the final master key using a method that the TSA could have never prepared for. So how did they do it? Did they hack into the TSA’s mainframe? Get past the firewalls and encryption? Other complicated hacker jargon from movies?

No. All they did was buy a bunch of physical TSA locks and figure it out. But why did they do it?

Data encryption works by translating data into nonsense and then giving computers a “key” to decode the nonsense. It’s a lot like physical locks and keys. Government agencies like the FBI have asked for their own set of “keys” to unencrypt data from companies like Apple.

This set off alarm bells in the heads of Nite 0wl, Johnny Xmas, and DarkSim905, and they wanted to raise awareness on how unsafe this was. And when they learned of TSA lock master keys, they realized it was a perfect metaphor. The government wanted to do to data what the TSA was already doing to physical locks.

So how does a TSA lock work like encryption?

Well, if you’re a malicious hacker, how do you crack these data “master keys”? As it turns out, all you need to do is gather a large amount of encrypted data, find some kind of detail they all have in common, and deduce what the encryption key is.

And that’s exactly what the hackers did to these physical locks. Using trial-and-error, they figured out what key would open all of them. There was some shape that the pin tumblers inside these locks had in common. And that had to be the shape of the master key. So how does a TSA lock work to prevent theft? Badly, as it turns out.

This is a flaw inherent in the master lock system. It doesn’t matter if the TSA makes a bunch of new master keys because the process could simply be repeated. It’s good that awareness of this issue was raised, even if it came at the expense of… basically anyone having access to your luggage lock.

Well, okay, that’s not great. But criminals could already use the pen method to open your luggage, so your safety was already compromised. There, doesn’t that make you feel better?

What To Do About TSA Locks

When it comes to the pen method, all luggage locks are essentially useless. And when it comes to the master key leak, TSA-approved luggage locks are especially useless. 

If you want to carry both a luggage lock and copious amounts of peanut butter, you should go for a TSA lock, but otherwise, there really isn’t a point. How does a TSA lock work if you have a pen?

One thing worth noting is that the TSA has outright stated that their locks are more for peace of mind than safety and that they’re not responsible for the effectiveness of these locks.

It has been argued that luggage locks deter some criminals, as the pen method is not necessarily well known. Therefore, there is probably a minimal amount of safety in having one.

They’re pretty cheap, so if they give you added peace of mind, they definitely don’t hurt. It could easily be argued to be a matter of better-safe-than-sorry.

Otherwise, you can go for other trip security measures. You could invest in a lockbox for your valuables. This is one of the better ways to guarantee that no one will have access to your luggage.

Most people won’t be able to get into your lockboxes without getting caught, even if there are some bypasses. This will significantly reduce your odds of getting stolen from.

And, of course, these odds are already pretty low. Rest assured that these thefts probably won’t happen to you. However, anything is possible, and it’s always best to exercise a bit of caution to prevent disaster.

Get a lockbox or two and a cheap luggage lock for that added bit of safety. Go for TSA if you think it’s likely that your bag will be opened, but otherwise, definitely go for non-TSA. How does a TSA lock work compared to a lockbox, after all?

FAQs

What are the best luggage locks for international travel?

All luggage locks can be bypassed by sticking a pen in the zipper. Instead of getting a luggage lock, you should consider investing in a lockbox or simply storing your valuables in carry-on luggage. How does a TSA lock work if all you need is a pen?

The TSA recommends not putting valuables in checked bags. They have officially stated that they’re not responsible for the safety of their luggage locks and that these locks are more for peace of mind than safety.

Do you need to lock your luggage when flying?

All zippers can be opened by jamming a pen into them, so luggage locks don’t do much. How does a TSA lock work to prevent that?

That being said, they may deter criminals who are unaware of this method. Locking your luggage is safer than keeping it unlocked, but it’s not necessary.

Do I need a TSA lock on my luggage?

Legally speaking, no. TSA locks are there so that when the TSA needs to open your luggage, they can do so without destroying your lock.

One thing to keep in mind is that the master keys for all TSA locks have been leaked. They’re not as safe as non-TSA locks. If you think your luggage is unlikely to be opened by the TSA, you should get non-TSA locks.

How does a TSA luggage lock work?

So how does a TSA lock work? TSA luggage locks are all master keyed – that is, they open both with your unique key and with a master key that TSA agents own.

This is through two sets of pins inside the lock: one configuration lines up one of the sets, and another configuration lines up the other. You can get any lock master keyed, not just luggage locks.

Do you need TSA locks for international travel?

TSA locks are never legally necessary to carry.

So how does a TSA lock work if you don’t need one? They just let the TSA open your bag if they find something suspicious in there. Many international airports have the master keys that the TSA owns, so they’ll work internationally.

Conclusion

Luggage locks are not nearly as effective as the average person believes. There are easy ways to get around them, and any moderately prepared thief will know how to deal with them.

And in terms of safety, TSA-approved locks are even worse. You’d think locks approved by a safety organization would have had safety taken into consideration at any step in the process, but no. (Even if that organization has does not have a great safety track record). How does a TSA lock work after all of that?

Overall, you should get a lockbox, not a luggage lock. Be careful with putting valuables in the hands of strangers, and take care of your luggage.

Category: Lock Picking, Lock Types, Travel Security

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