Spycraft and Safe-cracking
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How realistic is Agent Carter's safe-cracking device? Answer: More than you might imagine.
On the cover:
Marvel's Agent Carter, or simply Agent Carter, is an American television series created for ABC by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, inspired by the films Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The main character is Peggy Carter, with Hayley Atwell reprising her role from the film series.
How spy agencies and Marvel's Agent Carter crack safes
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.
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.
Michael Best, Counterintelligence Analyst: From an early age, Michael Best was fascinated with the world of spycraft. His love affair with matters of espionage began with the stories of his grandfather's time in the OSS, the World War Two precursor to the modern day CIA. This fascination continued into his teens, when he began reading spy novels and comic books and looked into every conspiracy theory from Area 51 to Watergate. The investigations into things like the JFK assassination and the Iran-Contra scandal provided an in-depth look... (more...)