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Security at Hand

12 February 2008

The use of biometrics for access control is now becoming a viable security solution, finding its way into a wide range of routine business applications. James Manning from explores how biometrics can deliver control over site security and health and safety.

ACCESS CONTROL AND SECURITY ARE PRESSING CONCERNS for virtually every enterprise in the UK. No matter the industry in which a company is involved, the same security issues arise and, for most organisations, the same problems of finding robust solutions that protect premises from unwanted trespassers also exist.

Currently external and internal access control to most buildings is by use of keys, keypads and swipe cards. However, all of these methods have obvious drawbacks as keys and swipe cards can be stolen or forged in order to gain illicit access to a premise; whilst keypads rely on a user’s memory and integrity to maintain a trouble-free access control system.

With these methods there’s no way to positively link the usage of the system or service to the actual user. A password can be shared, and there is no way for the system to know who the actual user is.

For reliable recognition biometric technology is the only real answer as a person’s physical traits cannot be stolen or forged, nor can they wear out or be replaced.

Biometric applications involve taking measurements of an individual that can be digitised and automated, expressing those measurements as a unique ‘template’ distinctively representative of that person, and then using that template to recognise a person’s identity when they come to gain access to premises. The strong relationship between a person and their biometric provides greater confidence in the authenticity of that person’s claim of identity, and as such it offers an indisputable means of personal identification for clocking-in purposes. This makes it an ideal application to integrate with time and attendance packages and,prevents fraudulent activity such as ‘buddy punching’ - one employee clocking in or out for another.

Moreover, should an employee leave an organisation, their records can easily be erased from the system. No additional costs are incurred, no locks need to be changed, and no new combinations of passwords need to be learned. Likewise visitors and contractors such as cleaners and maintenance staff can be added to the system promptly to ensure maximum security at all times.

Restricted zones and multiple patterns of access privileges can be easily installed onto a system, allowing different personnel to have access to certain areas at different times. For example, managers may have greater access rights than normal personnel, while night shift workers may be granted access to certain areas when they clock-on to do their job.

In the event of having to evacuate the site in an emergency, biometrics ensures that it is quick and easy to verify the actual number of workers on site at the time of the emergency and compare that with the numbers present at the muster point. Previous systems, especially swipe card technologies have proven flawed because they only report a card's presence on site, and not that of an actual person.

Companies have long understood the crucial importance of regulating access to their buildings, but the desire to protect property and information is now only one aspect of a wider issue. Legislation such as the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Occupiers Liability Act and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations impose a duty of care upon the owners and managers of buildings that extends to everyone on the premises, whilst data protection laws have introduced new security implications for the safeguarding of personal information.

Despite it being a hot topic, the uptake of biometrics from businesses has been slow to say the least in the pursuit of sales - only now are we seeing its full potential as a mainstream application. At a time when both public and private concerns about security are driving fraud prevention and reliable identity protection further and further up the national priority list, media and public attention in this area has remained stubbornly one-dimensional. The centre of interest and of debate seems firmly stuck in the groove marked ‘Identity Cards’ and that of a Big Brother state that abuses the privacy of employees. However, it’s all too easy to let these often hyped concerns cloud the real health & safety reasons for going down the biometric route.

The main goal of any access control system is to keep some people out and allow others to get in. User acceptance of the access control device is one of the most critical factors in the success of a biometric-based implementation in order to prevent improper use. The device should not cause discomfort or concern and must be easy to use on a day-to-day basis. This may be a subjective issue, but it is important to fully explain any concerns users may have. If using the device frustrates people they’re most likely to be predisposed to reject the system from the outset.

For many companies, the installation of an unbreachable access control system can be a real business positive! Owners of businesses that protect and store securely the property of others can use biometric access control as a value-added selling point. Bonded warehouse, self-storage operators and private safe deposit box companies are all examples of enterprises that can gain extra income from the installation of biometric access control.

More important than the protection of goods to many businesses is the protection of people. Nurseries, leisure clubs, retirement homes and hospices are all businesses that can offer added peace of mind to existing and potential customers by installing biometric access control systems to doors and restricted zones.

With growing acceptance, biometrics can be a useful tool in the enterprise security armoury. Biometrics can greatly improve the security of the systems they are intended to protect and are also steadily becoming more accessible for companies to implement. There are none of the risks associated with hackers breaking into password lists, or the problems of users forgetting their password or losing their smartcards. It is the users themselves who are verified, rather than a password they have to try to remember.

To date most biometric systems are located in high security areas, but with diminishing costs, customer demand for better value and the drive for greater security they are now really starting to penetrate the mass market and justifying the use of a biometric is a reality for more and more organisations.

● James Manning is Business Development Manager at Autotime Solutions

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