How I hacked my apartment building’s security system

When I first moved into my apartment after college in 1994, my Mom said she would feel better if I lived in a secure-locked building. I asked the police, and was told it wasn’t really that significantly more secure than buildings that were not secure-locked; so until 2007 the building where I lived was not, nothing bad happened that I knew of.


In 2007, a city ordinance was passed declaring that every residential building had to be secure-locked. That year in November, the outside keypad was broken. On my birthday that month, friends would have to call my cell and I or someone else at the party would have to run down to the outside door and let them in. Two months later, my friend Matt and I were going to meet up. He got to the building first, so he randomly called someone and said he was the cable guy, they let him in. Matt was waiting for me in the lobby when I got off the bus; it was January after all, I couldn’t blame him. Matt suggested getting a recording of the (touchtone) DTMF 9 sound and sticking it into my answering machine and plugging it into the security system. We did, and it worked. If I entered my apartment number from the outside keypad the answering machine would answer, play the sound, and unlock the door. It was wonderful, and way easier than fumbling with a key outside, especially in the winter. This worked well for fifteen years, except for the times when the keypad was broken, which was more often than occasional.


Last month, the keypad was upgraded, now the system calls the resident’s cell phone number. Bringing up the phone app, activating the keypad, and pressing #9 was a lot of fumbling and annoyed me. Matt, the same one, said why don’t you set up the DTMF sound in your voice greeting, so I did. Now I just have to press the power button on my phone twice. , My voice greeting begins with that #9 sound, and then a real greeting; hopefully, it won’t annoy people who get my voicemail very much.


Last week, my friend Kyle sent me a link to Lowkey. It’s a cool app that makes an apartment building’s lock system a smart system. One gives a virtual number with Lowkey to their property manager, and then LowKey gives them many options. For a subscription, they can unlock the door with their phone, or even set up codes for anyone from visitors to cleaning staff; it’s pretty cool. Except, it wasn’t accessible, not even the create account screen. I wrote to the Lowkey team, and Ty has been wonderful in communicating with me. The team is working on correcting these accessibility problems, and they and I are hoping for a much better experience for VoiceOver users soon. Until then, I still have Matt’s original idea.


Does my hack weaken the security of the building? The first solution plugged into the security line  may have, though I don’t think other residents knew about it, I hadn’t told them. Even if they saw me type in a number on the pad, they didn’t know someone in my apartment wasn’t answering the phone. My friends who have visited me knew, but beyond that I doubt few others ddid. Currently, the system calls my cell, I have to decide if the door will be unlocked or not. Now, it’s as secure as it was intended.

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