Targus DEFCON CL laptop locks: use at own risk, carry wire cutters

How a Targus DEFCON CL laptop lock failed the basic task of unlocking, and why you shouldn't buy it.

4 min read Filed in fail

Security is hard to come by these days, be it online or out there in the real world. Things have a tenancy to just somehow get up and walk away, even in places you never thought possible. Locks are supposed to be an answer to that problem, but the reality is that locks are a false sense of security to begin with, be it on your front door or the combination lock on your gym locker. They can be bypassed, they can be broken, they’re at best a deterrent for the unmotivated thief.

It was during a recent conference where I had gear setup that I decided I would attempt to prevent for the unmotivated thief, the kind of guy that sees a laptop and just walks off with it. Since I had two laptops on the back of giant LCD carts I went with not one, but two Targus DEFCON CL laptop locks (the PA410U model).

I know what you’re going to say. Isn’t this the same lock that was fully shimmed with nothing more than a piece of aluminum from a beer can? Indeed, it’s the same lock though slightly updated (as I later found out…more on that later). If you read the article, you will note that the lock just isn’t very secure. I already knew that locks weren’t secure in general, and while I hadn’t seen this particular article, I wasn’t surprised to say the least.

Since I wasn’t about to build out a more secure solution for this conference, these locks and cables would do for now. Having set both locks up to the same combination, and having them work for a total of two days and three uses, upon day three I ran into a problem. I couldn’t get lock #2 to open with the correct combination. The first lock opened without issue, the second one wouldn’t budge. This struck me as very odd; the lock hadn’t been tampered with (no visual indications of that) and I could see no other problem. I tried combination’s around the known combination and still nothing.

Fairly annoyed, I begin to search the web to see if anyone had experienced similar problems. A quick look at the reviews on Amazon clearly tell the tale: this lock will randomly reset the combination some folks said, and several apparently had this very issue. This was a shocking revelation, one that I surely did not read on the feature list.

I wasn’t totally convinced; I had only had this lock a total of three days and it had been locked and unlocked only three times. How could it have possibly reset? I called Targus hoping they could point me in the right direction. What I heard left me speechless.

Targus confirmed for me on the phone that this is a known issue with the lock, that it will indeed set to a random combination. Reasons it could have happened included that the tumblers were randomly spun too much, or that it just sometimes happens after heavy use. Their solutions document, emailed to me by the customer service representative, is labeled “Extremely Confidential”. Solutions include:

  • Manual Decoding of the lock: start at 0000 and work your way down.
  • Sawing off the DEFCON CL: using a vise and a hacksaw, remove said lock.

You probably don’t believe such an absurd claim. That’s why I’ve uploaded the document: DEFCON CL Removal Instructions. But it’s “Extremely Confidential” isn’t it? Sorry, but taking a hacksaw to a lock isn’t rocket science.

I’d had the lock three days. Do I get a refund? No. Will you pay for the locksmith should I call one to remove the lock? No. But the lock is defective isn’t it? No. Way to stick by your product Targus.

In the end, I had to cut the cable using wire cutters to get the laptop off the LCD cart. The aluminum shim trick to decode the lock didn’t work on the version of the lock I had (with the red plastic) because it appears that they changed the design of the set screw such that it has a lip that won’t allow the shim to pass. So I had to basically remove the lock from the laptop using my skills in metal bending. The laptop wasn’t harmed, and now I have one good lock (which I’ll never use again in fear of a repeat performance) and a cracked lock (which still won’t open).

My recommendation? Don’t buy this lock. Don’t use this lock. Do not use this lock unless you want to risk tethering your laptop to something semi-permanently (or at least inconveniently having to call a locksmith or a friend with wire cutters). If you use the lock, you might as well carry wire cutters.