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Dave Wilson

Key Keeps a Lock on the Mechanics

October 26, 2000|Dave Wilson

My first car was a scary-looking 1964 Ford Fairlane, which I loved partly because I imagined that it made me look dangerous and cool and partly because I always had a shot at fixing it myself.

But newer cars have lots of computer-controlled gizmos that I can't even diagnose, much less repair. Sure, those chips do things such as give my Toyota better gas mileage.

But they also distance me from a basic technology--my car--and make things more mysterious and less comprehensible. My guess is most people feel the same way about a lot of stuff.

What can we do?

Get used to it.

Case in point: The CyberLock. It's a standard-size lock that can replace almost any traditional cylinder lock such as those found in doorknobs, padlocks, deadbolts and desk drawers.

What makes the CyberLock unusual is that it doesn't accept a standard key.

It works only with a special electronic key about the size of those key ring doodads people use with their car alarms. Touch it to the CyberLock and, voila, the lock opens.

The lock itself has no batteries. It pulls juice from the key when the two make contact and a battery should last long enough to open a lock 2,000 times.

The company that makes the device, Videx at http://www.videx.com, just started selling a starter kit containing one CyberLock and two keys for about $150.

Plug the keys into your computer and you can tell them to work only at certain times of the day.

The keys can be programmed to not work on holidays, or to work only in tandem with other keys and to not work for any amount of time during any portion of any day.

Imagine the possibilities. Parents can make sure their kids don't go in the TV room before 6 p.m.

Folks such as dog walkers can get keys that only let them in at a specific time on a specific day. Starlets can reduce the number of times they purge after bingeing by programming the bathroom key to only work every eight hours.

In addition, the techno-key keeps a log of every time it's used--whether it has actually opened the door or was unsuccessfully inserted into the lock during a forbidden time or date.

Now we can make sure Granny has been taking her medicine by checking the key's database. Or count how many times Granny tried to get into the liquor cabinet.

That audit function can clearly be pretty useful, but it's also ripe for abuse.

A couple of decades ago, only the government or big corporations could collect data like that about you. George Orwell warned us about the intrusive Big Brother that could monitor our every move.

But now the technology has gotten so inexpensive and easy to use that your neighbor, spouse, parent or child can do the same thing.

We managed to avoid Orwell's totalitarian nightmare, in part because of his prescient warning about the dangers of combining powerful technology with powerful authority.

But things like CyberLock give that kind of power not to Big Brother, but to Little Brother. Maybe literally your little brother.

Despite such hazards, I expect we'll be seeing products like CyberLock showing up more and more in our everyday lives. They're just too useful, convenient and powerful to avoid. But they're going to introduce a whole new set of problems.

For instance, a standard house key could very well last you a lifetime with no real maintenance at all.

As a fundamentally irresponsible guy, however, I welcome the chance to add another excuse to my standard list. "The battery in my key died. Sorry."

But I think the most profound change that's going to be wrought by CyberLock and the other technologies sure to flood our homes is that the world will simply be a lot less understandable.

Most anybody who's seen a diagram of how a key fits in a lock can grasp the mechanical principles involved.

If you take apart these electronic thingamajigs, they're nothing but a battery and a circuit board.

The days when a kid could crack open a wristwatch to get a better handle on how the world works are long gone. Gears don't make the time happen. A microchip does.

Lots of devices, such as telephones, were almost entirely mechanical until fairly recently when they were replaced by printed circuits and microchips.

A lock remains a little piece of the past, a mechanical technology that's existed in some form for well over a millennium. The move from mechanical technology to electronic technology is transforming the world from something that a bright 9-year-old could comprehend into a place where even well-educated adults treat everyday appliances like magic boxes.

Since I just moved to Los Angeles, I've still got a couple of keys floating around that I'll never need to use any more. I was just about to toss two out recently, but then I decided to hang on to them. These babies might become collector's items.

Columnist Dave Wilson writes about technology for The Times.

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* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T6

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