CoreStreet's lock technology

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I just read an Economist article about Corestreet's interesting electronic lock technology. A basic problem with electronic locks is that you need to periodically update them when new people are added to the system--or more importantly when they are removed. This requires them to be connected somehow to a central server to get updates. Corestreet's solution is to use people's access cards to carry the updates around. Basically, you wire a small fraction of high traffic locks to the central server. Whenever someone uses one of those locks the lock writes the update to their key card. Then whenever they use a disconnected lock the lock reads the update off the card.

This is clever but I'm not sure how well it will ultimately work. One obvious problem is that it requires that every lock gets accessed by someone who also accesses a high traffic lock. I'm no expert on lock patterns, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are locks that only get accessed very infrequently by a small number of people. That's not a big problem when new users are added, but it could clearly be for revocation. Second, it seems like there's an easier solution: fit the locks with wireless and then let the locks update each other (you can ignore the security issues with both the wireless and card solutions, since there are known ways to address both). I'm skeptical that there are a lot of environments where wireless won't work but this solution will...

None of this makes it a bad idea, of course. Sometimes these clever crypto tricks pay off and even if it's not appropriate in this setting, there's probably some situation where it will be.

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5 Comments

How is this a "crypto" trick? The basic idea is just an observation about how we can use the users as a sort of highly unreliable lock-to-lock transport medium. Does it become a "crypto" trick just because we'd have to use some kind of MAC or signature on the updates?

(For me, a "crypto trick" is more along the lines of, say, splitting an RSA secret exponent to force a user to get an authority's help to decrypt her mail. That kind of thing. My perspective may be a little skewed, though.)

You also could put the authorization information directly on the smart card, and require periodical revalidation of this information (so that you can revoke privileges even if the card itself is lost).

Unfortunately, in my experience, companies offering electronic locks are not exactly crypto-savvy. Did you know that there is a commercial Blowfish library which features a fixed default key? Of course, this neatly solves the key management problem. (The other companies didn't even bother to offer crypto.)

There is also the problem, with the CoreStreet trick, of obtaining confirmation that the remote lock has been updated. If you knew which ones hadn't been updated, you could just send someone out to update them.

However, with your proposal you now have the contstraint that the locks are within range of a wireless receiver. Since you already need power for a wireless lock to work, this might be an application for data-over-powerline.

Wll, I don't think it's worth arguing about whether it's a "crypto" trick or not. My point is that it's a hack to avoid doing the obvious thing. Sometimes these hacks work well. Many times they're only good for generating an LPU.

Aaron: you need power for any lock to work. The lock mechanism is electronic.

I do not agree that wireless is an easier solution...

Most physical access systems are really simple, so adding wireless would require changing to a new hardware platform. A bigger stumbling block may be that you need quite a lot of software to drive this (at least if you want to use a decent protocol), and most physical access companies does not have much software experience. And the physical access market is rather conservative -- I have heard manufacturers boast about how primitive their technology is (after all, complex systems always have lots of bugs and stability problems...)

And then there are all the real-world problems of interference from other wireless devices etc.

CoreStreet's technology on the other hand seems to be rather easy to integrate in already existing platforms...

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