Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Calling Steve Highland a “locksmith” is like calling Stephen Hawking “smart” or Bill Gates “rich.” The titles are technically accurate but vastly understated.
Highland is a lock, safe or vault’s worst nightmare – and their greatest ally.
As principal technologist at Sandia National Laboratories’ Access Delay and Structural Assessment Department, Highland and his team design safeguards to protect some of the nation’s most critical assets, which can range from buildings and facilities to – well, he can’t say. As a national laboratory charged primarily with ensuring the reliability of America’s nuclear weapons, much of what Highland and his team protect is classified.
Highland and his co-workers design, prototype and test “access delay” systems, mostly for the U.S. military, he said.
They also do their utmost to thwart those very safeguards in an effort to create what they know does not exist – the impregnable security device.
“Any safe or vault can be neutralized, given the proper equipment and the time … I can always find a way in,” Highland said.
That’s not an understatement: Highland recently earned a “Certified Master Safe Technician” credential from the Safe and Vault Technicians Association – a quest that took him years of study and testing to obtain. He is the only CMST in New Mexico.
Although no safe or vault is impregnable, some are incredibly difficult to breach, he said. And cracking a safe “is nothing like you see on TV.”
Commercial safes are rated by UL, a worldwide safety consulting and certification company headquartered in Northbrook, Ill.
Once known as Underwriters Laboratories, UL provides safety-related testing and certification to manufacturers, retailers, policymakers, regulators, service companies and consumers.
It rates safes by how long they can delay someone from breaching them using tools, torches or explosives – or a combination thereof – without damaging the contents, Highland said. The best safes on the commercial market, he said, can delay access for up to an hour, not including the time it would take to set up an attack on the safe.
Given that no safe is impregnable, a safe designer’s goal is to delay a breach as long as possible, he said.
“When we design access delay features on government assets … we have to test them,” to ensure they can perform as required, Highland said.
To do that, a “red team” is assigned to do everything it can to defeat those features, whether it involves drilling, blasting, acidizing – anything the team can devise to gain access.
Typically, a customer will seek Sandia’s help in protecting a critical asset for which no existing system will suffice. Highland and his team will meet with the customer and engineers to design a system that protects that asset as well as humanly possible. Once the design is approved, Highland and his colleagues will often build a prototype in their on-campus machine and welding shop.
When designing an access delay system, Highland uses all the different features he has seen over the years to make defeating that system as difficult as possible.
“There have been safe and vault ideas from other manufacturers, from way back when up to good ideas from now, that have been incorporated in government stuff,” he said. “But when we’re protecting assets that could take out thousands of Americans,” designers will use the best technologies available – including some that can prove lethal to the intruder.
Highland and crew are also called upon to defeat systems designed by America’s adversaries, which Highland said can be equally challenging and highly time-sensitive.
Without going into specifics, Highland said he and his team once trained military personnel to breach a sophisticated security system in Iraq on very short notice.
Learning the trade
Highland, 61, learned the locksmith trade by accident. The Carbondale, Ill., native was in a work-study program in 1973 when he was supposed to interview for a busboy position at a Holiday Inn restaurant. But a classmate, who had planned on going to work for Sam Lence, proprietor of Sam’s Safe & Lock in Carbondale, didn’t have a driver’s license, so Lence hired Highland instead.
Although Highland took to locksmithing – and has owned two of his own businesses – southern Illinois’ bone-chilling winters became too much for him and his growing family.
On a whim, he applied for a job with Sandia Safe & Lock in Albuquerque and moved here in 1985. The company did contract work for Sandia National Laboratories, and Highland was soon introduced to his future employer.
He started full time at Sandia labs in 2000 and plans to keep working to build the ultimate access delay system.
“I have a challenging job,” he said. “And I never have a boring day.”
Despite his encyclopedic knowledge of locks, safes and vaults, Highland admits that he once locked himself out of his new Chevy pickup truck.
“I had to call OnStar to unlock it,” he said.