Access control - past, present and future

October 2004 News

Access control, in one form or another, is as old as mankind itself. When primitive man rolled up a stone to the entrance of his cave to protect himself from wild animals, he was in effect, controlling the movements of animal traffic through a point of entry or portal.

By the seventh century BC, access control had evolved to the point where crude locks and keys were used by the Persian King, Sergon II, on the gates of his palace. Modern key-activated locks, such as those used with safes or to control access to private premises, are merely sophisticated versions of the earlier crude lock and key.

For many years locks and keys were adequate in controlling the entry and exit doors of buildings. As security became more important it became obvious that a better system was needed. Locks could be picked and keys copied. If a security area key was lost, stolen or misplaced, it was necessary to replace all the locks using that particular key, in order to maintain maximum security. Another disadvantage with locks and keys, is that there is practically no way of determining who went where and when. Access control systems evolved from this need to know who went where and when. Three basic types of access control systems can be identified, these are manual, machine-aided manual and automated.

Manual systems

Manual systems use people, usually dedicated security guards, to control access to restricted areas based on a simple visual check of the person wishing to enter and/or the exchange of one identification card for another. This last procedure forces the guard to make a positive identification before the exchange of cards takes place. The main disadvantage with this type of access control system is that entry or exit depends to a large extent on the integrity of the guard.

Machine-aided manual

Machine-aided manual systems refer to those systems in which the guard is provided with entry-control equipment to assist him/her in his/her duties. The guard may, for example, be required to undertake intermittent personnel and package searches for contraband, such as firearms, before allowing access. The type of entry-control equipment used by the guard, to assist him/her in making decisions to allow or deny access, includes items such as X-ray machines, metal detectors and explosive detectors. Airport check-in security is a good example of this method. Although security is enhanced by employing entry-control equipment, the guards are still required to control access to the restricted area and therefore, machine-aided systems suffer from the same disadvantages as the ordinary manual system - that is, guards are still required to make the decision regarding entry or exit to or from the restricted area.

Automated systems

In contrast to manual types of access control systems, which rely on a person (usually in the form of a security guard) to make the decision to allow entry or exit to or from the restricted area, automated systems allow people to enter or exit without 'guard' intervention. However, should an alarm be triggered by an attempted intrusion through the access point, or in some cases by an incorrect attempt to enter or exit the restricted area (such as entering at the wrong time) guard response is necessary. This means that guards are not required to control access on a permanent basis but only need to be available when an alarm is triggered. Thus, a saving in the number of guards required is achieved, as fewer guards can be located at a centralised point, ready to respond to alarms received from the different security (restricted) areas. Possibly the best known automated systems are the card access control types. These vary from the simple 'standalone' systems to the more sophisticated computer-based systems. Standalone systems control access at the entry or exit point, either at the card reader itself or via a small control unit located in close proximity to the few card readers it controls. On the other hand, computer-based systems control many card readers from a central processing point. The larger open architecture type of access control systems can control movement on a worldwide basis and also provide the platform to integrate other security systems, such as, alarm monitoring, intrusion detection, and closed circuit television systems to form a totally integrated security management system.

What next?

Although entry control systems have been around from the times of primitive man, the basic functions remain the same. That of controlling the movement of people and goods through some form of portal. Having looked at the past and present, what of the future? The access control industry forecasts strong growth for smartcard and biometric systems - although opinions vary as to how soon or how fast these sectors will develop.

The smartcard sector is expected to be the first to boom. Contactless smartcards are thought to offer the best prospects, since they can compete with the currently popular proximity systems. Some suppliers are confident that proximity technology will remain dominant for rather longer and think that South African customers will be slow to take up the added features of smartcards.

Potential customers are already becoming more accustomed to the idea of biometric systems and these are gaining sales in South Africa. Sales progress in this sector is likely to be more gradual than in the smartcard sector, but at some stage biometrics could become the dominant technology. Prices for biometric readers and smartcards and readers are expected to continue to fall. It is too soon to predict which, if any, of the biometric technologies will eventually dominate the market. Iris recognition appears to be gaining sales for high-security applications, while systems based on fingerprint pattern or hand geometry tend to be less expensive and are perhaps more easily accepted by the users. There are several other technologies with possibilities.

Continued growth is expected for integrated-security systems and for systems integrating wider building-control functions with security. There will be growth in intelligent networked systems and the use of asset tagging linked to access-control systems.

Threats to security will be the driving force in the growth of the access control industry. For example, the terrorist threat places the emphasis on customer sectors, such as airports, government establishments, high-profile companies and large office blocks, but these are already important customers. Other kinds of threat, such as computer fraud and industrial espionage, remain more probable for many of the customers of the access-control industry. However, a climate has been created in which security is likely to receive high priority generally.

Brian Barnes
Brian Barnes

Brian Barnes is a security technology specialist, he can be contacted at Hodari Security Technologies, 082 973 8295.

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