How Secure are Your Condo’s Master Keys?
By: Phillip Livingston
Date Published: November 26, 2020
Master keys are a critical asset of condo corporations. They allow authorized users to quickly access units or facilities and eliminate the need for buildings to make dozens or even hundreds of duplicates. But, many condos struggle with master key control.
During construction, contractors use a master key system that allows them to move freely through the building. The problem is, once the condo is complete, it’s difficult to know which contractors might have kept the master keys to the building. If the condo building hasn’t been re-keyed since owners began moving in, the security of the condo could be compromised.
In rarer instances, unauthorized individuals may get a hold of master keys and find a locksmith willing to make a copy. For example, in one real case, a condo had to pay over $30,000 to re-key its building after a master key was stolen from a fire safety box, and used to steal a bike in a storage locker.
Professionals that conduct security audits often find master keys stored in fire safety boxes in condo vestibules, and while these areas are considered semi-private, they offer little security. In reality, these storage spots are accessible to virtually anyone, and boxes can be pried open without too much effort.
In even rarer cases, owners have turned to Google to see how they can persuade locksmiths to duplicate master keys for their own personal use.
Warnings don’t do much good
In an effort to prevent master keys from being duplicated, managers or boards will often have a “do not duplicate” message engraved onto keys. But that doesn’t mean the key cannot be copied. There is no law that protects “do not duplicate” keys, and the message is seen as more of a recommendation than an order. Hardware stores may refuse to cut a copy of these keys, but a locksmith can easily duplicate them.
The inscription may help to decrease the number of unauthorized copies, but at the end of the day, “do not duplicate” keys are no more secure than keys without the engraving. In fact, adding this message to keys may actually provide a false sense of security.
Practical ways to increase security
If you are concerned about the security of your condo’s master keys, there are a few steps you can take to augment safety for owners and for the building.
Store master keys in a secure place
Master keys need to be kept in a secure spot. While this may create additional work for any authorized user that needs to access the key, convenience shouldn’t be a top priority when it comes to this issue. It is recommended that master keys be stored within security’s or concierge’s line of sight, ideally at the desk they are working from or in the management office (as opposed to the vestibule). Keys could be locked up in a small safe or a discreet drawer.
Work with reputable locksmiths
Hire a locksmith who you trust. Most property management companies have a list of preferred contractors who have proven to be both reliable and ethical when it comes to pricing and work.
Use restricted keyway locks or restricted keys
The reason that people are able to copy “do not duplicate” keys so easily is because they use key blanks that are widely available to locksmiths. By installing restricted keyway locks, only your authorized locksmith will have access to the blanks. That significantly reduces the chances of any unauthorized copies being produced. To copy a restricted keyway lock, a person would have to find the condo’s locksmith, and then convince them to produce a duplicate.
While you can legally copy “do not duplicate” keys, in some places, it is illegal to duplicate restricted keys. Restricted keys are covered by U.S. patent laws, which protect manufacturers of specialized lock and key systems. Duplication rights are limited to approved manufacturers and locksmiths, and fines of up to $10,000 can be issued for circumventing the law.
Someone looking to duplicate a restricted key will have a hard time doing so. The process requires special equipment because the key design is so unique.
Implement a key tracking system
Create an organized system for signing out and returning keys so that there is a written record of who has access to master keys. A software system, such as Condo Control’s security and concierge console, will make it easier to implement and maintain this process. Guards can easily capture and log essential information every time a key is checked out or returned. By logging master key information, management and security always know who has a master key, when it was checked out, and why it was taken out. Security may even require an ID and a signature before a key is handed over. This is useful for situations where keys must be given to maintenance professionals or staff who don’t usually work in the building.
This key tracking feature is part of Condo Control’s security and concierge console, which also offers guards invaluable tools like security logs, incident reporting and authorized entry.
Re-key the master keys
If your condo building is new (less than two years old), it’s not a bad idea to re-key master keys. That’s because the board probably doesn’t know how many keys were provided to contractors during the condo’s building and warranty phase. During re-keying, locksmiths change the internal mechanism that accepts the keys, making it impossible for the previous keys to open the locks.
Re-keying can be an expensive process, so if you’re going to invest in this upgrade, consider having a security audit performed to ensure that there are no additional vulnerabilities before beginning the project.
Switch to key card systems
Special key card systems prevent the possibility of master key duplication altogether. And, management has the ability to restrict certain areas or terminate access to cardholders without needing to reissue cards for other security staff.
Train employees and board members
Implement regular key control training for employees and board members to remind them of best practices. Take the time to go over processes, answer questions they may have, and ensure they know what is expected of them. Training could be done once or twice a year.
Strict control of master keys must be enforced in condo buildings in order to maintain safety and security. If a master key falls into the wrong hands, many things could go wrong. In order to prevent thefts or unauthorized access to facilities, master keys must be very secure. Staff must be trained on how to use or lend out these keys, and swift action must be taken if a master key is ever lost.