Access Control has been an essential element of security since the human race realised the need to safeguard its property - yet it often fades into the background to the casual observer. But rather than being a passive element of security, access control is evolving into an integral part of an intelligent and reactive response to the latest threats. The evolution of access control is seeing new technologies and methods of using them that are designed to widen the gap between easy access for authorised visitors and significant barriers to intruders.
Undoubtedly access control is also becoming a key element in a wider pervasive move to integrate and streamline business technology, as commercial leaders look to garner the best value from the resources they spend. To achieve this, the access control industry is looking at ways of using avant-garde technology and more common, readily available workhorse products and systems, to offer the best-value, bespoke solutions - which offer genuine value for money. There is also a growing trend to integrating this with wider-ranging business systems to provide even greater control.
Take the example of a typical business premises. Most commercial offices use both security systems (be they fully automated or manned) along with non-security systems such as environmental services and core business systems. Traditionally all these services would have run independently, possibly as a legacy from a time before modern technology played a key role in organising data and it made sense logistically to organise these functions in isolation from one another. In all likelihood they would also have been run by different individuals or teams and only monitored at a top-end level by the company’s management. However the increased homogeny of data systems means that integration is a far simpler and more desirable way of running the business and its premises efficiently.
Having the premises or a group of buildings within the company integrated makes sound business sense. Access control and other security or monitoring systems, such as CCTV, Fire systems, HR or personnel records (including School Information and Management System in the case of educational establishments) and environmental controls can all be used to monitor and react to situations as a whole. The obvious example is in the case of a building fire. Whilst the fire system will alert the appropriate emergency and management teams, access control in conjunction with CCTV can be used to alert which individuals that are potentially in the building and can also be used to close access to potentially dangerous areas to unauthorised individuals. The whole situation can be centrally managed remotely to ensure the highest degree of safety and effective response when time and decisive action will be key. Equally CCTV, access control and the HR system can be used in close co-operation in the event of an intruder alert. The access control system and CCTV will alert the operator of any potential intrusion whilst the HR system can be consulted to reference who should be able to access a specific location at the specific time to decide if it is a false alarm. Access control systems can even be used to help find greater environmental and efficiency savings as well, by monitoring access to the building and intelligently switching off lights or other powered systems when the facilities aren’t in use. The combination of integrated tools that need to be incorporated can vary on the application, but having this full integration makes the overall task of building management much easier.
As part of this increasing move towards access control integration there are inevitably wider changes afoot in the infrastructure and organisational makeup of security management. A noticeable change in recent years is the increasing involvement of the IT department in taking control of elements of physical security along with the network security. As well as making the sharing of data easier, IT departments are also finding other benefits, such as cutting redundant and replicated information and the ability to remotely access and control building services from other remote locations to cut response times and the financial consequences of physically supervising multiple sites. This is being further fuelled by the UK network upgrade (21CN) and fibre roll-out by BT, which will give unprecedented IP connection speeds and make remote access integration even more appealing.
The wider technology trends that will directly influence access control technology are equally progressive. Along with IP integration becoming more mainstream, there are strong indications that Near Field Communications, using the latest ubiquitous mobile devices, will continue to become increasingly prevalent in the management of access control systems. By using a popular personal device such as a mobile phone, the user is freed from having to carry a specific ID token, which can be inconvenient and easily forgotten or mislaid. Equally, these Near Field Communications can be combined with cutting-edge biometric technology to give truly secure and convenient access.
The emergence of biometric readers, such as fingerprint, vein and facial recognition is one of the most exciting developments in access control. Fingerprint readers are still often the main choice of biometric technology because of their relative simplicity and enticing cost levels, but the market is opening up to the idea that security can be significantly increased by using alternative methods or indeed by combining these to preserve user convenience whilst attaining the very highest levels of identity-dependant access control. Biometric readers are also particularly well suited to certain environments or locations. For example, employees working in extreme or dirty environments, such as desert locations, marine oil platforms, building sites, mines and quarries or polar research stations will have limited scope to carry identity tokens, so utilising biometrics is an ideal solution. Inversely, biometrics (especially contactless technology such as facial recognition) are equally ideal for sterile environments such as laboratories or hospitals where it is undesirable to have items that lead to contamination.
Biometric readers are also at the vanguard of the on-going effort to ensure access control is less fallible to the threats of fraudulent unauthorised entry. Using biometric data helps to significantly cut down the likelihood of unauthorised persons obtaining or counterfeiting access tokens. It is also an increasingly important element in finding ways to successfully incorporate multi-factor authentication into access control, which very rapidly ramps up the protection levels significantly. Even when used with more traditional identity verification methods, such as swipe cards, biometric readers add a significant level of infallibility to any access control system.
Take the example of a hospital drugs storage and dispensing area, with its attraction to criminal elements. Using a swipe card or PIN reader offers a basic level of access control, but in a location with a high turnover of visitors (many being normal members of the general public) the likelihood of a motivated individual being able to either steal an ID card or memorising the PIN code is an obvious concern. With the valuable and potentially very harmful products being stored it is highly desirable to use a 2-factor or even 3-factor authentication process to control access. Using a relatively simple and inexpensive access control method such as a MIFARE card reader (for a basic level of security) which is then combined with a cost-effective fingerprint reader means the individual looking to gain access has to verify their identity twice. This method not only effectively restricts access, it also gives a traceable record of who entered the restricted area and when, so there is an audit trail should there be any inconsistencies in stock taking for example. Additionally, the fact that various authorised persons can gain access at the same time means that even within this group it is desirable to have a further and more accurate record of entry, in the event of any issues and potentially serious consequences.
This combination of access control technologies is another pervasive trend that is likely to continue growing within the sector. A move to multi technology readers is beneficial to end users and installers alike. The use of MIFARE cards, with their ability to encapsulate multiple details and information for different systems on a single token, is already proving to be cost effective for many businesses. This is further boosted by the use of Read/Write readers with remote access, which make the process of issuing and updating identification cards faster and more straightforward. Integrated controllers and readers significantly reduce the installation time required and also increase the ability to make full diagnostic checks and remote interrogation of problems. With ease of scalability, it’s not difficult to see why this approach has already become popular and looks set to become the norm for many installations.
Inevitably, closer integration with other buildings services and the IP system means software is becoming a far more dominant consideration in access control management. The use of embedded web server technology within the hardware is making it easier than ever to oversee access control systems from any location. It also removes the traditional reliance on client software, a barrier to integrating different systems that can prove costly and frustrating when looking to enhance or extend the access control network. Going a step further and using hosted systems via an IP connection is another option that is increasingly becoming open to users, which can potentially offer increased resilience and a high degree of interoperability.
Access control solutions are also increasingly benefitting from innovations that the IT industry takes for granted. As well as IP integration, which as we have seen simplifies installation and management, the access control sector is increasingly embracing Power over Internet (PoE) technology to share cabling, which inevitably makes installation much easier and more convenient. Many vendors are now also starting to embrace WiFi to wirelessly link access control systems to further simplify installation and maintenance.
Whilst the access control sector is embracing the huge benefits of integrated technology, there are important security issues that also need to be considered - after all this is why access control is installed in the first place. Whilst using commercial off-the-shelf IT systems, such as Linux for example, offers great flexibility and attractive pricing (especially in conjunction with IP integration and web servers), they also present new security vulnerabilities which wouldn’t have been an issue in the past. In some cases installers may be working with technology that is less familiar to them and there are risks that parts of the system may not be as secure as the physical access controls. This is where expert access control vendors will be able to make a real difference, lending a greater degree of support, through partner training and professional advice - ensuring that installers fully understand the wider ramifications of installing integrated systems so that the process offers as water-tight a solution as more traditional methods.
Looking to the future
Predicting the future of access control, like the future of anything, is always a difficult task to do accurately. However, past experience has demonstrated that generally the market follows trends that offer the best solutions for the real business world. With regards to technology, there is no question that integration of systems will be a key factor in the future of access control management as the benefits are numerous. This will offer greater levels of interoperability and make it much easier to assess incidents and analyse events from beginning to end. Rapidly evolving integrated technology, such as video analytics cameras (which count people and prevent ‘tailgating’, one of the biggest access control issues), will increase security and reaction times. At the lower end of security needs, access cards that can be used for multiple applications will continue to evolve and offer affordable and highly usable solutions. At the other end of the scale, demand for biometrics readers will undoubtedly continue to grow due to the high-reliability and ease-of-use, bringing down prices and making the technology more mainstream. But beyond the technology, access control, like every other business expense, will be expected to continue offering tangible value for money. The age-old consideration of total cost of ownership will continue to be a key factor in where and how customers spend their budgets.