Hacking in the Far East 3: Home Insecurity in Japan

Based on Paul S. Ziegler’s observations, in this section you can learn some facts about the measures adopted in Japan to prevent intrusion into one’s home.

What we’re going to look at next is ‘home insecurity’. I have this basic approach that if anyone has access to your home, your work machine, your server, or your fridge – you’re screwed.

Two main types of homes in Japan If you look at home security in Japan, you basically look at two different categories of homes: you have the apartment category over here (see left-hand part of the image), and you have the mansion category (right-hand part). Apartment and mansion don’t really mean what they mean to Western people or even other Asian people.


Security characteristics of a Japanese apartment An apartment is basically cheap in terms of rent and construction, apartments are mostly built out of wood and paper, and they’re not guaranteed to withstand a strong earthquake. To the contrary, you actually sign a clause that if an earthquake above magnitude 6 should strike, you acknowledge that this building will actually collapse.

Apartment window closed with a rail So, they’re a cheap form of living, and if you want to know about security, there is no security. Your window is isolated with rubber, so you can just push a coat hanger through there and open it without damaging it, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s just a window, and if you have a rock, you can just throw it in a second anyway. If you look around, there is some hope over here: this window is, obviously, closed off with a rail, which is very nice (see left-hand image).

Sort of a lame security decision It brings up the question: why did they take the least accessible and smallest window in the entire apartment to wire it up instead of the big one leading to the balcony? I figure it’s so that they won’t ruin my view on the other apartment that is 50 centimeters away. But there is a much bigger problem here. So, we’ve seen the wired window, and now let’s take a closer look. Can anyone spot a flaw in this security design? (see left-hand image) Yes, so let me introduce you to my new elite hacking tool – the screwdriver. And yes, you can take it off. You’ve got a door lock on that one, it’s fairly standard, you’ve got a pretty simple key. It takes about a minute to pick, not that I tried, because that would be illegal, ahem…

No problem getting a copy of your key One thing to give you some confidence is that your rental agreement will always have a clause which says: “Yeah, you know what? To prevent crime, we’ve actually tagged these keys, and no locksmith is allowed to make a copy.” So, if you look at it you go: “That’s actually kind of nice, because now only really hardcore criminals will have the technology to copy the keys.” Now, unfortunately, any of the stores I tried – none really cared. So, you just walk in and you go: “Hey, I would like a copy of this key,” and the guy at the counter will ask you: “Sir, are you aware that this key is copy protected?” And you say: “Yes, I am,” and he says: “OK.”


Bump key to a mansion type home Now, let’s move on to the mansion type. The mansion type, part 1: you’ll need to sell at least one of your kidneys to afford it. They’re sturdily constructed, they’re earthquake resistant, they’re actually based on the model of a giant frying pan in the ground, on which the actual building stands. They are centrally locked and they often come with security services. Now, on the first view these are really nice from a security perspective, because, for example, here is the key (see left-hand image). It’s a bump key. It’s my current place, so I’m not going to show you the full bump.

What is peculiar about Japanese mansion type home? You have a security system installed; this actually links to a central company that surveils your apartment: a couple of sensors get activated, and they’ll come. You also have alarm buttons to call them directly. You have double locks, and the doors are actually metal enforced, so you can’t easily kick them in. And you have a central lock downstairs, so no one can come through that door either, and these locks actually use some sort of NFC, and I’ve tried to look into it today, but we couldn’t get a reading out of them. But either way, they’re touch enabled, so we’re finally safe.

Fence with high security lock turns out amazingly easy to walk over Well, not quite, because behind my apartment, I’m not sure if you can see this because the lights are kind of weird, there is this fence to protect the back entrance (image to the left). The fence has small height, and there is a pretty high stepping stone right next to it, so you’re not going to have to jump. You can basically quite comfortably walk over it. And then, once you’ve walked over it – oh, by the way, it has the same high security lock in there, so you can’t just open it, but if you walk over it, you take two steps and you get to the bicycle entrance which does not happen to be locked. So, yeah, we’re screwed again.

Programmable home security system This is the home security system in itself (see right-hand image), and this one is interesting, because, like everything in Japan including the toilets, this thing can be programmed. Now, if you’re a dumb foreigner like me, this can be quite a challenge, and here’s what happened. I moved into this apartment, and I saw this and I thought: “Wow, this is really cool. I’ll have something to play with tomorrow. I’m not awake enough to do it today, but I’ll look at this thing tomorrow.”

What I didn’t know is that the guy who lived in the apartment before me had programmed this thing, and the management company did not find it a required action to reset it to standard factory settings. So, the guy who lived here before me had this really, really brilliant idea. He had this idea that if it’s after 1 a.m., and your lights have been out for more than 20 minutes, and your doors are locked – you’re obviously either asleep or you’re gone. So, if anyone at that point should try to open the balcony door – that must obviously be an attacker or a kidnapper or whatever. So, the alarm system was set to basically dispatch the SWAT team to my apartment without verification if the door should be open after 1 a.m., and my lights have been out for more than 20 minutes.

If you’re a kidnapper and you ever want to get rid of the SWAT team, just pretend you’re German – apparently, it works :)

No normal person would do this, unless of course you’re a 20-something white guy who just moved into Tokyo after a couple of years and decided: “Wow, it’s such a lovely night; I want to have a drink out there, overlooking the beautiful scenery.” I open the door, the alarm system goes off, and the metallic Japanese voice is going: “Intrusion prevention system activated, intrusion prevention system activated.” 20 seconds later, my cell phone rings, and there is some male voice going: “Yes, sir, someone is breaking into your apartment, we’ve just dispatched the SWAT team.” So, I tell him: “Dude, that was me. I missed it, I opened the door, it was me, you can trust me,” and he goes: “No, we can’t do this, because what if there is a kidnapper at your home and he’s holding a gun to your head and he’s forcing you to say that, so we have to come.”

And I appreciate that, because that’s obviously a right thing to do. That said, it’s 3 in the morning, I have to go to work the next day, and I don’t really feel like having a SWAT team searching my apartment for a hidden intruder. So, I bust out the dumb foreigner card; I stop trying to explain them what was going on, and I go: “Dude, let me talk to you directly here. I’m German, I just didn’t know.” After a five second pause, the guy on the other side of the telephone goes: “Oh well, I’ll call them back.” So, also, if you’re a kidnapper and you ever want to get rid of them, just pretend you’re German – apparently, it works.

Read previous: Hacking in the Far East 2: The Suit Works Wonders

Read next: Hacking in the Far East 4: Locked but Unsafe

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