Popular Espionage

Spycraft and Safe-cracking

Agent Carter
Hayley Atwell
Hayley Atwell
Hayley Elizabeth Atwell, born 5 April 1982, is a British actress. She is best known for her work in stage productions such as A View from the Bridge, and in films such as Cassandra's Dream, The Duchess, The Pillars of the Earth, and for her portrayal of Agent Peggy Carter in various Marvel Cinematic Universe films and TV series. | Photo: Archives | Hayley Atwell, Actress, Marvel, Bite, Lip, Necklace, Comic, Peggy Carter, Hero, Sexy,

How spy agencies and Marvel's Agent Carter crack safes

In Marvel's new show, Agent Carter, the eponymous agent goes off the books and undercover to recover stolen materials from a safe owned by Spider Raymond, nightclub owner and organized figure. To open, she uses a spy device concealed as a wrist-watch to spin the dial and open the combination safe in a matter of seconds. Aside from being a delightful moment of television, how realistic is Agent Carter's safe-cracking device? The answer is: more than you might image.

Real world spy agencies use any number of techniques to get into safes, vaults, and other secure containers and facilities. The most straight forward method, and the one favored by the FBI, is to use a warrant to physically take possession of the safe and/or force its owner to open it. The obvious downside is that the process gives time to move or destroy evidence, and it's a matter of record that the investigation is ongoing. In instances where this is unacceptable, like counterterrorism and counterintelligence cases, the FBI gets a warrant for what's commonly known as a black bag job. A black bag job involves the FBI surreptitiously entering a facility and collecting evidence so that the subject isn't aware of the investigation until it goes to trial.

To do this, the FBI needs to open a safe without damaging it. Many modern safes are electronic, and relatively easy to bypass with the right equipment. However, this doesn't work on systems that have additional locks not controlled by an electronic keypad or that are shielded against it. If the FBI is able to get to the keypad shortly after it's been used, infrared scanners can not only identify which keys were pressed, but which ones were pressed after the others. However, this method doesn't work on dial combination safes. Thieves would simply drill into the safe and use a scope to discover the combination.

The KGB's answer to this was to use a device about the size of a flashlight along with radioactive film to provide images of a safe's locking mechanism. The device had only one downside: the radioactive isotopes used slowly but surely poisoned the "disposable" KGB agents that handled the devices. For the FBI, such methods were obviously unacceptable. The version developed to be used by CIA employees was slightly larger, used a larger oscilloscope to take measurements using ultrasound More modern versions of this technique use better controlled types of radiation, and even ultrasound, to safely accomplish the same task with devices even smaller than those used by the KGB. However, some safes now use low density materials like nylon to frustrate this type of attack.

Before they try to crack a safe, the FBI minimizes the chances for failure or discovery by knowing exactly how they're going to This is why typically, black bag jobs are conducted in multiple stages. First, the team gathers information about the exterior of the building, with a special focus on the lock and what they'll need in order to camouflage themselves while they gain entry. The initial trip inside is simply to scout and gather information. Photographs are taken of any locks and safes that will need to be penetrated. Additional photographs are taken of items that will later be replaced with exact duplicates containing listening devices or cameras.

Hayley Atwell
Hayley Atwell

Hayley Elizabeth Atwell, born 5 April 1982, is a British actress. She is best known for her work in stage productions such as A View from the Bridge, and in films such as Cassandra's Dream, The Duchess, The Pillars of the Earth, and for her portrayal of Agent Peggy Carter in various Marvel Cinematic Universe films and TV series. | Photo: Marvel |
The FBI then analyzes the pictures, identifying the exact types of locks and safes they'll need to crack and they'll prepare for those particular types. In some instances, their safe-cracking expert will be able to open the safe by listening for the clicks as they spin the wheel, or by feeling the vibrations in their fingers. (It's just as impressive in person as it is on television.) Many modern safes are guarded against this, and it's likely that the complexity of the York safe seen in Agent Carter would've thwarted this as well. Safes produced by that company often used five digits, with the dial requiring five complete turns, then four, and so on with each other number in the combination.

So what do intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA do when they're other methods of cracking a dial combination safe are thwarted? One option is to use an autodialer and crack the combination using brute force. Using 3D printing techniques, an autodialer can be made for only a few hundred dollars. Professionals would likely opt for a high end model, which can run up to several thousand dollars per unit. These can open a safe in an average of six hours, while anecdotal evidence suggests that with foreknowledge and an expert's safe manipulation skills, this can be reduced to under an hour.

If Agent Carter had been able to trust the rest of the SSR with her investigation, she almost certainly would've used them and a black bag team to get into the safe. As so often happens in fiction, however, she was forced to go rogue and investigate on her own. She went in alone and armed only with she could sneak in and the knowledge gleaned from the SSR's file on Spider Raymond and his nightclub, which likely included details about the safe. So would it have been possible for her to open the safe with a magnetic autodialer that got the combination right on the first try?

Surprisingly, it's more or less possible. Nicolai, a former high-ranking KGB employee, showed Marc Weber Tobias "a very neat decoder to read keys that used magnets to rotate internal wheels within a highly-sophisticated lock." While it's unclear how large the decoder was or if it was designed to use on large safes, it's certainly enough of a proof-of-concept for a world that includes super-soldiers and a Hulk. Using the SSR's information about the model and design of Spider's safe, she could've pre-set a device she borrowed from work to quickly open the safe.

If you found this interesting and would like to see Agent Carter's adventures in espionage, tune to ABC at 9:00 EST. To learn more about the world of spies and spycraft, come back to PopularEspionage.com for more Popular Espionage and subscribe to @PopEspionage on Twitter.

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Updated Apr 22, 2017 5:31 AM EDT | More details

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