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Many combination locks can easily have their combinations decoded, even while the lock is shut. Suppose someone decoded the combination to a lock, wrote down the combination on a piece of paper, and taped it up next to the lock.

For the sake of the scenario, suppose that the decoder doesn't open the lock or enter the locked area. The decoder is aware that someone might read the combination, open the lock, and go into the locked area, but hasn't made plans with anyone to do that.

Has the person committed a crime by decoding the combination and posting it next to the lock? If someone else reads the combination, opens the lock, goes into the locked area, and commits a crime, without any other interaction with the decoder, does the decoder share any criminal responsibility? Civil liability?

I am aware of this question, but it poses a distinct scenario where the decoder also enters the locked area.


More generally, I am interested in the question: Suppose that the usefulness of some object relies on the secrecy of some information. If that information is published, the object becomes worthless. Is it legal to obtain and publish that information, if no physical damage is done to the object when deriving the information?

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  • Most laws just aren't that specific. Really, do we want to pay our legislators to cover every conceivable possibility? (what about posting a note with a QR code that takes you to a website with the lock combination?) DV for not being a useful or interesting question. Apr 27, 2023 at 19:02
  • @MichaelHall The reason I'm interested is because the difference between a secure lock and an insecure lock is just some information, and we usually don't criminalize publishing information - but here it makes the lock effectively worthless. This scenario comes up frequently in computer hacking, but there are laws specifically prohibiting this behavior in computer-based settings. That's why I'm wondering if it's legal in a purely mechanical setting.
    – isaacg
    Apr 27, 2023 at 19:05
  • And the difference between slicing a piece of cheese and a fatal stabbing is just about 6 inches, but we don't usually criminalize moving a knife blade 6" when slicing. My point is that there are broad laws that provide prosecutorial discretion in instances of aiding and abetting criminal mischief. (Intent is important...) It is highly unlikely that any statute gets this specific, but of course you can't prove a negative, and some small town, somewhere, may actually have a law on the books that deals with your exact scenario. Apr 27, 2023 at 19:21
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    This could be seen as a form of abetting, since you are assisting some unauthorized person to enter who could cause some form of damage. Aiding and abetting - Wikipedia Apr 27, 2023 at 19:25
  • @MarkJohnson The way I (NAL) read "abetting" is that it requires both a crime to be committed and that the person wanted the crime to be committed. So if a crime wasn't committed, or if the intent of posting the combination was only to demonstrate to the owner of the lock that it's trivial to defeat (as the LockPickingLawyer does), I as a juror would find it difficult to vote to convict the person of abetting the crime. Apr 9 at 0:49

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The decoder is aware that someone might read the combination, open the lock, and go into the locked area ...Has the person committed a crime?

Maybe not a criminal offence, but the decoder might be liable civilly under the Tort of Negligence, which is:

a legal wrong that is suffered by someone at the hands of another who fails to take proper care to avoid what a reasonable person would regard as a foreseeable risk. In many cases there will be a contractual relationship (express or implied) between the parties involved, such as that of doctor and patient, employer and employee, bank and customer, and until relatively recently it was necessary for such a contractual relationship to exist in order for a claim for negligence to succeed.

But the civil law relating to negligence has evolved and grown to deal with situations that arise between two or more parties even where no contract, written or implied, exists between them.

Is it legal to obtain and publish that information, if no physical damage is done to the object when deriving the information?

One scenario where this might be a criminal offence is if the information is protected with a Government Security Classification marking (i.e. spying).

See Section 1, Official Secrets Act 1911:

(1) If any person for any purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State—

  • (b) makes any sketch ... which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy; or

  • (c) ... communicates to any other person any secret ... sketch ... which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy;

he shall be guilty of felony

Section 12 states that:

The expression “sketch” includes any photograph or other mode of representing any place or thing;

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    ^ I'll add some exact case law shortly
    – user35069
    Apr 27, 2023 at 20:12

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