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Illegal Engineering (timhunkin.com)
232 points by bowyakka on July 6, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments



Great piece (or at least what I skimmed through). However, I think this hypothesis is not well-founded:

> I suspect the main reason for the disappearance of the craftsman criminal is simply that there are fewer and fewer people with the practical skills and confidence to even try to break into a safe. Engineering apprenticeships have been decimated, and even the old metalwork shops in schools have gone, replaced by ‘craft, design and technology’, which seems to mainly involve making things of cardboard.

As he mentions later in the piece, the rewards just aren't that great. Moreover, I think surveillance technology has reached a point where getting access to the safe is harder than cracking the safe itself. And that if you have the means to bypass the surveillance, then you have the sophistication needed to bypass the safe's physical locks without traditional safe-cracking.


For a year or so in college, I worked at night for a security firm. I spent several months working in a bank's operation center, watching the camera feeds from the branches overnight. Anyway, for some reason part of the training for that job mentioned that the average bank robbery at the time grossed only about $1500 (about $4000 now). Plus the robbers would almost certainly be on video and the FBI was automatically involved. And with dye packs (bundles of cash that explode with brightly colored dye) and other measures... Well, robbing a bank was a pretty stupid plan.

The other months of that job involved patrolling the HQ for a phone company, including the central computer rooms. One day we got a memo about a well-known hacker group that had dressed up in suits and just walked into the building because the daytime guards weren't checking IDs. Ha.


When I worked at a fast food joint in a mall, our boss had us move the safe after the mall closed to bring it to a new location.

Picture two 19 year olds rolling a safe on a handtruck to a rental van parked in front of a the mall entrance at 11PM. The mall rent a cop came up to us and yells "What the hell do you think you are doing?"

My coworker snaps "WTF do you think? We've moving the safe -- get that door for us!". He did, and we rolled the safe into the van, then headed for our cars.


It is a well known social hack to simply put a good suit on, walk up to people like you belong there, make them feel important and then get them to do whatever it is you want.


You can go anywhere in life if you look serious and carry a clipboard


And a full size video camera. I've been issued temporary press passes at a Republican fundraiser by signing out a professional grade camera at the local cable company (after a four hour course), telling security we were with CCTV (they didn't blink), and CNN let us use some of their lights!


Not sure whether you were aware of this, but CCTV are a real network - it's China's state owned TV company, which also produces global and English language content - so saying you're from a global TV network is probably not that blink-worthy.


cue the theme music for "Burn Notice" ... :-)


If you have a suit + high-vis vest + hard hat you can take over the world !


Yes, this is known as "Management."


In the DC area a year or two ago, two bank robbers impersonated the armored car company and took money from two banks in the same day. People didn't recognize them, they said the other guy was off today. I don't think they were caught.



I think that there may just be easier targets. A few years back I spent a night in jail (don't ask), in the same cell there was a guy who was quite happy to talk about his M.O., he specialized in lifting the floor safes from small strip mall fast food joints (places like Subway). Apparently they don't keep much in them overnight, but because they close long after banks do, it's just easier to keep the till float and evening takings in the floor overnight. He gave a startlingly detailed description (he was in withdrawal and just wanted any distraction) of how quickly and easily he could get into the unit, find the safe, pull it out of the floor and be out of there in just a few minutes. He claimed between $1K and $3K was usually in there... at which point why bother with pulling over a bank.

In his own words he got caught because he was "too successful, I was taking so many drugs I got stupid, the cops pulled me over with safes and paraphernalia in the trunk"


This was really the opposite experience I had when I was a teller in a bank. The amounts were similar but the chance of getting caught was slim. We had a binder of local bank roberies that we updated when the person was caught. It was usually rare for a person to get caught unless they were really dumb about te roberery (told someone such as friend they thought they could trust or their license was recorded) or they got greedy and came back several times. The banks never pursued the robbers very hard because the money was all insured. If a robber was smart he would tell the teller to not put a dye pack in the money and we were always instructed to follow those kinds of orders ... There was no reason to be a hero. Also if you ever want to rob a bank don't threaten that you have a weapon ... Armed robbery is a much more severe punishment than unarmed.


The FBI says the modern bank robber walks in, gives the teller a note, takes the money and leaves within 90 seconds. He never carries a weapon and gets less than $2k, but if he's reasonably smart he can rob 30-40 banks before being caught.

That's terrible pay, when you think about it. You're always on the road, and you spend a couple days on each bank. You might as well sell insurance for a living.


At least some economists agree: http://arstechnica.com/science/2012/06/economists-demonstrat...

I think robbers know that, too. Bank robbing is old school. Robbing Gas pumps also has gotten too risky to be worth the trouble; they keep way less money around than they used to and they have video recorders everywhere. So, nowadays, your best bet is mom and pop shops, at least that is what I read in the papers :-)


The key here is that you would eventually get caught. Then what? Those years add up fast.


Oh, I agree. The point was even if you don't get caught you're not doing that much better than someone with a job.


Love a bit of Tim Hunkin. Anyone reading HackerNews would probably enjoy his television series from the early 90s: The Secret Life of Machines. Details, including links to download locations (bittorrent for preference I'd imagine) here: http://www.timhunkin.com/control/n_tv_index.htm


He's amazing. I absolutely devoured his book 'Almost Everything There is to Know' as a kid, which was the collection of all his cartoons from decades at the Observer. It's now online http://www.timhunkin.com/40_rudiments_book.htm but I highly recommend getting a second hand copy of the book. I must have read it cover to cover about 5 times and I think it's the source of my reputation of always knowing ridiculous random facts.


That show is awesome, be warned if you download it you will spend the weekend glued to the computer watching it :) I wish there was something more recent in the same vein.


Thanks a lot for the link. As an french guy, I didn't know about him before I read this article. This was actually one of the best I've read since a long. I'll definitively look at this series, I have to see more of his work.


What is the "DT" mentioned in this article? I have no prior knowledge of that acronym.



Almost certainly, given that the author seems to have significant connections to the UK.


He refers to it again later; "Engineering apprenticeships have been decimated, and even the old metalwork shops in schools have gone, replaced by ‘craft, design and technology’, which seems to mainly involve making things of cardboard."


When I was in secondary school twenty+ years ago, we had both: Design & Technology (AutoCad !) and a full metalwork shop with everything except oxyacetylene torches. There's nothing like hands on experience when it comes to making real things.

I'd love to know whether all that stuff is still there.


We had hand draw pictures and woodworking. Still fun though.


Design Technology - it's drawing pretty pictures (sorry `design concepts`) of what you would make if your school still had proper shop class.

It is to "metal work" what "information technology" is to programming.


My son has just started doing Industrial Arts at school. A lot of it just seems to be dreadful spouting of design and architecture jargon.


But what do people want from a wheel? How do they relate to it? What colour should it be?


3d printers to the rescue?


In the past week I have been reading _Essays Ancient and Modern_ by Bernard Knox. In the autobiographical introduction, he writes of being trained for infiltration behind German lines in WW II, including a class with a master safe cracker, then an inmate of Pentonville Prison. Knox flunked, as having insufficiently sensitive fingers, and the safe cracker advised him to stick to dynamite. As matters worked out, Knox never had the chance to practice burglary, though he saw a good deal of action.


I hadn't previously seen this video, but it's a great insight into his slot machines. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9mkhI-KB_U


I was shopping for safes a while ago. It's pretty amazing how bad the low-end safes (gun safes, in particular) are -- 12-16ga steel with some concrete. You can open one (destructively) with a heavy ax or sledge in a few minutes. Even when the door is something semi-acceptable (1/4" steel plate), it's often the only part, with the body of the safe being much lighter.


To be fair, at the bottom end of the market safes are competing against Kensington lock cables and hiding valuables on the top shelf of your wardrobe.

If anyone broke into my home I assume it would be a brick through the window then in and out in five minutes grabbing any laptops, jewelery and cash rather than a planned attack with thermal lances and diamond core drills!


Buy the cheap safe, put nothing inside and then hide everything valuable on the top shelf of your wardrobe.


Yeah, I just feel a particularly high level of responsibility when it comes to securing weapons. In addition to the financial loss, you've got moral and potential legal liability for how they're used. (I think only civil, and a lot of that would be addressed by taking reasonable precautions to secure them, plus reporting theft in a timely manner).


I'm in the same boat as you. I would like to have a safe a thief couldn't open easily with the tools in my garage.

On the other hand, my guns aren't rare or particularly high quality. A reasonably good safe will cost more than the contents.


The generally accepted solution to that problem is to buy more guns, so as to raise the value protected and thus justify a Graffunder or ISM safe.


Ahem, and what about not owning one?

Edit: Nevermind, don't want to launch this debate. But it is so obvious a solution to me...


At the very least I think anyone responsible will argue that if you shouldn't own a gun (suicidal, unable to keep it secure, just don't want to, etc.), you shouldn't own one.

But the overall debate is probably not going to get decided on hn in any useful way.


"In the last twenty years, the craft of safe cracking has tragically declined."

No kidding, bank accounts with proliferation of various ways money is transferred and stored - budding criminals and kids who want to play mischief - look to the internet now. Cracking safes is so quaint.


From the title “Illegal Engineering”, I thought this would be about titling yourself a “Professional Engineer” in Canada and similar countries, where calling yourself that without a professional engineering license is illegal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulation_and_licensure_in_eng...

I don’t mind reading about safe-cracking, but it’s a little disappointing that the article never talks about when safe-cracking is illegal, or how specifically it relates to engineering. The title doesn’t fit.


If you insist on everything conforming to your exceedingly narrow interpretation you must find life very difficult. I would stick to reading law books and phone books.


Your reply greatly exaggerated how much I dislike the title. It was rude of you to attribute a straw-man worldview to me and then snidely insult it. Your reply implied that I did something like call for the deletion of the article because of its title, though I had even stated that “I don’t mind reading about safe-cracking”.


Anyone else read it aloud in his voice, pauses and all. Occasionally picturing him blowing himself up while setting the charges and all that?


I have not, I think I must !


In the article there are some references to medieval locks.

I was impressed to see early roman (Pompeian and Herculaneum) era locks. If anyone is interested this query served me https://www.google.com/search?q=ancient+%22roman+OR+pompeian...




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