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Why TSA-approved Luggage Locks Are Useless

by on September 14, 2015
in Travel, News, Travel & Entertainment, Blog :: 20 comments

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As a smart traveler you want to be using the latest travel technology. But if you're using a luggage lock approved by the Transportation Security Administration or if your bag has a zipper, your bags are not secure.

An article published in the Washington Post ran pictures of the master keys that can open every TSA-approved lock in existence (though the pictures have since been removed.)

These detailed photographs – which were published last year but recently began circulating online – have now been used to create files for 3D printers that allow anyone to 3D-print their own master keys to TSA-accepted locks as seen in the video below.

Since 9/11, passengers flying to or within the US have been required to use TSA-approved locks that can be unlocked by one of seven master keys held by a few higher-ups in the TSA, allowing travel sentries to search bags without having to damage the locks or bags.

Without access to a master key, baggage handlers, hotel staff and others in the luggage transport chain should not be able to open these locks. Yet that's the fatal flaw – the master key, or backdoor into a supposedly secure system.

Security researchers say the situation with the exposed TSA master keys illustrates the problem with such “backdoors”, whether of the physical sort, or the cryptographic backdoors that the FBI has been campaigning tech companies to build into encrypted communication systems. Cryptographic backdoors would allow law enforcement to investigate illegal activity on smartphones - as well as enable criminals to steal sensitive information.

Of course, no luggage lock would put off a determined thief for very long. In fact, it's been shown that all you need is a ballpoint pen to break into a suitcase. You can use a pen to unzip a suitcase and then zip it back up again. You won't even notice it's been opened. See how in the video below.

So what should the air traveler do to secure his or her baggage? There's no truly secure solution, but you can deter would-be thieves by buying a bag that's zipperless, like the Samsonite S'Cure Spinner 28 ($189.94 on Amazon) or Samsonite F'lite GT Spinner 31 ($155.13 on Amazon), and using your own lock when you're not flying. Of course, the best security measure is to keep your valuables with you.

[Image Credit: TSA Lock via Shutterstock]

Discussion loading

TSA Locks

From Hideki Yamada on September 14, 2015 :: 1:48 pm

You guys are missing a point. It is not about the hackability of any TSA lock. Of course, you can hack one. The point is that thieves go for easier targets. If there is a lock, that slows them down, and since there are plenty of other unlocked ones, they would move on. A TSA lock cannot prevent anyone who has zeroed in on that piece of luggage because that is the only one that the thief is interested in. But if your luggage is just one of many, then it can redirect the bad guys. This is what a TSA lock, or virtually any luggage lock, is for.


I don't think we are.

From Josh Kirschner on September 14, 2015 :: 2:02 pm

With a TSA master key, opening a locked bag takes only a fraction more time than an unlocked one. And if you’re locking the bag in your hotel room, thieves have plenty of time to do either opening method. And having a lock on your bag may have the unintended effect of advertising that you have something in your bag you are trying to protect, making it a more appealing target. After all, if there is nothing of value in your bag, why are you locking it?

The answer here is to never put valuables in your bag, then it doesn’t matter what you do as far as locking.


Hotel Theft

From Jenna on November 08, 2016 :: 8:12 pm

I’ve had hotel maids steal silk blouses, scarves and even shoes. That’s a pain for those of us who travel light. If a locked piece of luggage is broken into at least you have proof to take to the hotel manager.


No Valuables in bags

From Doug Clinton on March 03, 2017 :: 1:35 pm

I agree but should I take my pistol in my carryon when I travel? Having a secondary, secure container inside the bag, that is attached to the bag is what works for me. Is it a perfect solution? No, there is none. The point is to make the thief go for the easier target. My steel, biometric portable gun safe is a good answer.


I agree you are missing the point

From Bob Goldie on May 02, 2018 :: 11:45 am

Baggage handlers may not be willing to be caught with a key. So having a lock may deter some.



From fox on September 14, 2015 :: 2:00 pm

@ Hideki Yamada

Wrong.  Locks SHOULD be EXACTLY what their INTENDED purpose is for.  LOCKING OUT.  PERIOD!

I’m tired of this age old argument of redirection.  That’s just an excuse for not having a solution to the problem.  Again.  PERIOD.


I think you are still missing the point

From Hideki Yamada on September 14, 2015 :: 3:36 pm

There are NO locks in the market that can stop a determined thief. None. Given enough time and an appropriate tool, any luggage lock can be taken out, a TSA version or not. This is why you should not keep valuable in suitcases (aside from the airlines losing them), whether locked or not. That the lock is TSA is irrelevant. Seasoned baggage thieves can always open bags. However, a TSA or any lock is not completely without merit. If the time is of essence, which is usually the case when the thieves are in airports (including baggage handling areas and tarmacs), they would prefer to go for easier targets (unlocked). So many people in their carelessness do stuff valuables in suitcases, which thieves know, and these bad guys would rather go through five unlocked ones in the time they can go through one locked bag, however easy it is to unlock it. It is a probability’s game.

In a hotel room, where the thieves can operate without the rush of airport settings, all bets are off. As I said above, with enough time and tools, bad guys can always bust the locks, TSA version or not. In a hotel room, no baggage locks are ever safe. In that setting there is not a lock issue, but rather, the “do not leave any valuable in your bag and use instead the hotel safe” issue.

Regarding the point made about the lock making the suitcase look more likely target, I say maybe. But many, including myself, use these little locks only to prevent the bags from bursting open during rough handling. And again, with so many careless people putting valuables in their bags, locked or not, thieves know that the more bags they go through, the better chance they get in finding something. Unzip, shove hands in, check, pull hands out, zip up, next, slide the bar, shove hands in, check, pull hands out, slide the bar back, next. You do this enough and fast, then you are likely to come across something valuable. That is how a lot of those airport bandits operate. They are more pressed for time and more opportunistic as a result, and unlocked bags give them more opportunities.


Another point of view

From Paula Sullivan on September 14, 2015 :: 5:11 pm

I don’t recall luggage locks ever being any kind of real security. The ones you saw when I was younger were the same dinky locks that came on every diary, so kids everywhere had the keys to these things, and the locks weren’t strong to begin with, either. The purpose of them were basically to keep the suitcase from accidentally becoming unzipped (always a good possibility from the way luggage is tossed around). Valuables should never be in something that will not be with you the entire time - that’s not new knowledge. My grandmother knew it, my mother knew it, I grew up knowing it, my daughter knows it. If it’s going to be tossed in the belly of a plane, everything in there should be replaceable upon landing in case your luggage doesn’t show up or shows up damaged, and with millions of bags lost or damaged every year, that should be common sense.


There two lessons to this story

From Josh Kirschner on September 14, 2015 :: 6:39 pm

The first lesson to this story is to support the broader argument for why government security backdoors are dangerous. If the government has a backdoor, eventually others will learn how to exploit that backdoor, as well.

The second is building awareness of the security limitations of using TSA locks to secure your baggage. If you search for TSA locks on Amazon, you will see many companies touting the secureness of their locks, and many reviewers commenting on how they’re relying on that security to protect their belongings both in the air and in their hotel rooms. What may be common sense for some, is not for all, and consumers need to know the facts about what level of protection they’re really buying.

I appreciate all of the comments people have on this topic!


You're Right!

From Fox on September 14, 2015 :: 8:19 pm

You are absolutely correct Josh. 

Falling off the track is my biggest gripe in following along with conversations, and her I did it myself.

I too occasionally fall off and go down other roads, but I’m usually very conscious of that and tend not to do it because my thought process is always so very linear.  But obviously I failed miserably this time.  lol


Keeping luggage closed

From Kim on September 20, 2015 :: 12:02 pm

I have never assumed that a lock would keep out a thief—even in the days before TSA. I use luggage locks primarily to reduce the chances of the bag opening in transit, with a secondary reason of deterring thieves by making the bag a harder target. I actually started using tie twists instead of locks a few years ago, and they are better than a lock IMO. They are relatively easy to take off, but more challenging than nothing. And when I’ve flown, TSA has sometimes replaced the twist tie with a plastic zip tie, which may be a better idea than a lock in the long run. Keep valuables in carry-on bags and watch other luggage when it’s in your possession.


I never check anything valuable

From Michael on April 22, 2016 :: 7:57 pm

I never check anything valuable and just assume even with a lock, the TSA will open it or potentially steal something. Just a risk you take when you check a bag. I have these TSA TravelMore locks and am pretty satisfied with them.


The suggested samsonite bag as an integrated TSA lock

From The Gremlin on August 20, 2016 :: 7:43 pm

Just saying


oh, cool, so the only

From John Bell on September 13, 2016 :: 4:28 am

oh, cool, so the only way to be safe it to spend $150-$200 on luggage using your affiliate link… seems legit.


Locks only serve to be an inconvenience, nothing more

From Gary on February 01, 2017 :: 3:07 pm

This only applies to checked-in luggage, as of course luggage on your person is only as safe as your attentiveness.

For checked-in luggage, the only thing you can do is make your bag less tempting.  A lock helps a little.  But even more so is wrapping and strapping that would take valuable time to defeat.  As for hotel rooms, forget it.  Put your valuables in your safe.  If you’re in a country where you might be concerned about certain clothing items, then be sure to keep them out of sight.  I put such items in a detachable inner garment bag and slide under the bed.  It must be black in color, of course.  Shove it towards the head of the bed.  So even if a maid makes a quick look under the bed, they’re not going to see anything.

Another method to hide your best clothing is to insert it inside less appealing clothing.  On very nicely made jeans, you can run a small cable lock through the zipper pull and the eye of the top closure.


Guardall Safes Document Cabinet Sydney.

From vinay dhaka on December 01, 2018 :: 5:21 am

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Your Video Had Me in Augh!!

From Margo on February 14, 2019 :: 1:21 am

What a great video. Such a shame that the lock could be hacked that easily. I]m always extra careful about keeping my luggage in my sight and boobie trapping the clothes inside my luggage to see if anyone has been inside. I guess I’ll have to pray more while traveling. I leave expensive items home.


Pointless anyway

From Jared on August 02, 2019 :: 2:33 pm

The TSA locks are pointless, don’t waste your time and money on them. I just got home from a trip and found that the TSA decided it was easier for them to break open my TSA lock than it was to use their master key. A lock is always good for keeping honest people out. If they want in, they’ll get in.


Forgot the Safe Skies Combo

From Aaron Linsdau on November 28, 2019 :: 6:28 pm

I had a similar problem - we thought we had the combo set correctly but when we spun the dials around and tried it, we were locked out! There is an actual way to “see” the combo setting, then march back to unlock it. We made a video to help people out:


Why Do We Need a TSA Approved Lock?

From John Peters on November 08, 2021 :: 5:10 am

It is not necessary to use a TSA-approved lock. It is, nevertheless, advantageous if you enjoy traveling. One of the reasons we need a TSA-approved lock is to keep our bags safe during the flight. It makes it impossible for TSA inspectors to cut locks for inspection.


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