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Traditionally, mechanical locks and keys have been used to regulate door entry and exit.  When a door is locked, only the person with a key can enter it.  However, a mechanical lock has many limitations.  It can be copied and given to an unauthorized person.  It can be lost. It doesn’t record who enters or exits the door and when.  It also doesn’t prevent a person with a key to enter at certain times.  When the person with the key is no longer authorized, you have to change the locks to make sure that entry is protected.

With technological advances, we now have electronic access control systems that use computers to provide a wide and highly-specified range of options in allowing who, where and when people can have door access in a building.

In hotels, for example, a key card is provided to give guests access to their room. Once their booking date expires, the card authorization expires and will automatically prevent guest re-entry into the room.  The keys cards even control the power supply in the hotel room, thus saving energy and costs for the hotel.  On the other hand, hotel cleaners will have key cards that can access several rooms they are responsible for, but probably not certain offices or rooms on other floors in the hotel. Hotel cards are Smart cards with memory and can be used to store value as well, so depending on the hotel, a guest could use it to pay for minibar items, for instance.

Instead of cards, some systems have developed other means of access.  For instance, mobile phone apps, RFID chips, or biometrics of a person such as a fingerprint read by a scanner can grant, deny and record access.

How exactly do modern access control systems operate?

Modern access control is based on sophisticated software programs that establish access levels depending on the position of the employee or authorization of the visitor. The Human Resources Department of a company works with the Security Department to determine which employees are authorized to enter which areas and when. Rank and file employees can normally enter and leave during normal working hours and have access to most areas of a company. However, certain areas such as Executive Offices, Server Rooms and Vault Areas will normally be restricted, sometimes even requiring dual authentication, meaning two cards or fingerprints are needed to enter.

Senior managers would normally have 24/7 access to most areas of a company in order to oversee their areas of responsibility.  

But how does the system know who you are? The software has a file for each employee with all relevant data and then assigns a number to that employee. The employee is given a card which is associated with that personnel file and his card, fingerprint, palm or face is entered as an identifier. The reader is a specialized device that identifies the user by one of several methods. It can be a simple RFID card; a Smart card that provides higher security, stores data and cannot be cloned; a fingerprint reader that identifies the user through his unique biometric identifier; a retinal reader that reads the eyes; a palm reader that reads the veins in the palm; and finally a facial scanner that has a database of faces that have been registered to the system. Some readers even communicate with a phone via Bluetooth, but these can be less secure because they rely on the holder of the phone rather than a fingerprint or a face.  The reader instantly communicates with the software and approves or rejects the “credential” that is presented to the reader. If approved, the reader interface module sends a signal to the magnetic lock and opens the door (known as a maglock door). 

Once inside the user must go out using a credential so the system is informed. Say you want to sneak out for a smoke so you “tailgate” someone leaving who has opened the door with their card. The system thinks you are still inside and if you try to come back in it will not open the door. This is called an anti-passback. The same thing happens if you tailgate someone in, the system will not let you out using your card because technically you are not in.

Access control systems also work with other building systems. In case of a forced door or a door left ajar, an alarm will sound and a CCTV camera will activate to take a short video until the problem is fixed. In case of a fire, the access control system will open all doors and turnstiles and the public address system will announce evacuation.

Other Applications 

  1. Covid-19 Management

Recently, facial readers have incorporated temperature and mask sensors to comply with Covid-19 security measures.  For public spaces, an auxiliary temperature scanner can be fitted onto a walk-through metal scanner; or a CCTV thermal camera can be mounted at the entryways.  These then send an alert to security in case the person entering has a fever.    

2. Human Resource Management

I mentioned that Security works with HR to assign access authorizations. HR gets a bonus here because the access control system generates a detailed time and attendance for each employee, allowing this data to be plugged into the payroll system and generate payroll and leave credits.  

3. RFID Vehicle Entry and Asset Tagging

While RFID Cards are commonly used in access control readers, there are other usages for RFID. One common use is vehicle entry to controlled highways, car parks and subdivisions using RFID windshield stickers.  Another usage is asset tracking by tagging fixed assets with small RFID stickers to do inventory. HMR Solutions currently tracks Citibank’s artworks in all their branches using RDID stickers and handheld scanners.

4. Stored Value Cards

Smart card technology is not only used for better security but, as mentioned earlier, can also store value.  In the metro rail stations, these stored value cards allow passengers entry into the turnstile gates if the computer identifies that it has enough credits to pay for his or her ride.  The same card can be used in partner stores to purchase items.


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