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Lock-making giant seeks key to legal threat

Punch key locks meet many security needs

The Swiss-based Kaba Group, one of the world’s largest lock makers, is being sued after it was found that one of its products could be picked by a magnet.

A class action law suit in the United States alleges that a combination key pad lock, commonly used in homes, offices, airports and hospitals, did not provide the security it promised. The company denies all the claims.

Kaba’s problems started in August last year when it was discovered that a powerful magnet, made from rare earths, could override the locking system and slip open the bolt securing the door.

On finding out the news, Kaba designed and issued a new casing at the start of this year that could be fitted over the lock, preventing such magnet attacks.

But some customers were not happy with the company’s response and lodged a collective complaint in November, citing fraud, negligence, misrepresentation and deceptive sales practices. By March, more than a dozen names were on the list of plaintiffs.

The complainants want compensation to replace the locks and are also seeking further damages. The class action claims that “hundreds of thousands” of people could be affected by the problem with some models of the company’s Simplex locks – Kaba, however, said affected customers should be limited to a few hundred.

“Minimal” security risk

The discovery that a powerful magnet, known as neodymium iron bore (NIB), could render the locks useless simply by being pressed against them in the right place appears to have been made by accident.

Reports state that lock owners found the flaw by testing their safety. Kaba told swissinfo.ch that it had received no reports of premises being broken into or of criminals using the magnets to unlock doors.

Furthermore, the company said the danger was minimal due to the difficulty of obtaining such magnets in the first place.

“These magnets are not the common or garden kitchen variety, but are ultra-strong industrial magnets made using rare earths,” spokesman Jean-Luc Ferrazzini told swissinfo.ch. “The [new casing] we released at the beginning of this year to upgrade existing locks cannot be compromised by these magnets.”

Daniel Becnel, a US lawyer representing many plaintiffs, told swissinfo.ch there had been reports of break-ins at some premises without obvious signs of forced entry, but he stopped short of saying if a magnetic attack was suspected.

Orthodox Jewish solution

Becnel said his clients wanted a refund and were not happy with Kaba’s solution of sending customers new parts to fix to their locks. “These locks are very complex and I seriously doubt if an individual could fix these locks,” he told swissinfo.ch in a written statement. “If a locksmith is required, it would cost hundreds of dollars per lock to fix.”

The mechanical keypad Simplex lock is designed to protect doors without the need for a key and allow for the code to be changed taking the lock away from its fixed position.

It is marketed as a solution for offices or other locations that have a number of users and a high turnover of staff, leading to a need to change the code on a frequent basis.

The locks also supplied the solution for an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn who needed security that did not compromise their strict religious ethics that forbids the use of keys, or other daily functions, on the Sabbath.

“This case is very serious since most of the locks were fitted to courthouses throughout the country, apartment complexes, government buildings and the like,” Becnel said.

US largest market

Despite Kaba supplying a new casing to remove the unusual security risk, some customers remain unhappy, according to the lawsuit, claiming they were not informed of the problem, thus exposing them to intruders.

Kaba said it had informed wholesalers in the US about the problem and relied on them to pass on the message to customers. “No customers have contacted us to tell us that our information was incomplete,” Ferrazzini told swissinfo.ch.

The potential reputational damage to the company could cost it dear as the US is its most valuable market. Kaba realised 22 per cent of its SFr1.13 billion ($1.26 billion) sales in the US last year.

The 149-year-old firm entered the US market in 1978 and hugely boosted its North American presence when it acquired Unican Security Systems in 2001.

However, Ferrazzini said the legal action had so far had “no significant impact” on its performance in the US.

Kaba Group

The Kaba Group was founded in Switzerland by Zurich-based Franz Bauer in 1862 as a locksmith and safe-building company.

The original company name of Kassa Bauer was subsequently shortened to Kaba.

The company states on its website that it is the world’s leading manufacturers of key blanks, key cutting machines, transponder tag keys and high security locks.

It also claims to be one of the world's leading providers of electronic access systems, locking systems, hotel locks, security and automatic doors, as well as time and attendance systems.

Kaba’s largest markets are in the US and Britain. It first entered the US in 1978.

The 2001 acquisition of Unican Security Systems gave Kaba control of the Simplex mechanical push-button lock systems that operate without electricity supply.

The company has 8,000 employees operating in more than 60 countries.

In the 2009/10 financial year, Kaba achieved sales of SFr1.13 billion and a consolidated net profit of SFr86.9 million.

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swissinfo.ch


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