Access Control and Biometric Technology: No More Free Rides

April 23, 2007

By Barbara A. Nadel

Collection and storage of personal data for security purposes is now a standard operating procedure throughout society. Despite privacy concerns, identity verification and access control have become critical global realities in the post-9/11 world. Controlling access to an area or building is an important aspect of providing security, preventing unauthorized entry, and reducing crime. From hotels and theme parks to airports and public venues, access control technology has many applications.

The goal of access control is to deter an intruder from entering a facility - especially when planned with architectural elements, such as walls, doors, and fences - and to deny or delay access through a control point. Technology is an effective means of identifying those requesting access and ensuring they are the same person as noted on their ID cards, because it is not unusual for people to give their access cards to others who are not authorized to use them.

While basic in concept, access control can be challenging to achieve. Among the most widely used technology systems are combination locks, keypads, magnetic strip access cards, proximity card readers, and one or more used together, such as card readers and keypads.

Biometric technology verifies personal identity on the basis of individual physical features. The term "biometrics" is derived from Greek words bios, meaning life, and metros, for measure. Biometrics applications include hand geometry, fingerprints, iris and retinal scans, and facial recognition. The U.S. government, for example, scans fingerprints of visitors entering the country.

For access control to any valuable secure asset, such as restricted, sensitive areas, experts suggest a keypad as well as a proximity reader or biometric device. The keypad allows the user to enter a simple duress code, usually one digit off from the regular PIN. This provides silent notification to the central control station that the user is being forced to allow access. If a proximity card is lost, the keypad prevents anyone from picking it up and using it.

Theme Parks
Disney World, reportedly the largest single commercial user of biometrics, began using biometric fingerprinting in 1996 to identify users of annual and seasonal passes. In 2005, Disney admissions passes began using fingerprint scans to monitor customers entering their venues. The fingerprint scan was associated with a guest pass and limited theme park access only to those who purchased tickets or entered the park with a pass. By 2006, Disney upgraded to new technology using one finger instead of two for an image that identifies a series of points, measures the distance between these points, and generates a numerical value. Advantages include shorter wait times, convenience over showing photo identification, and greater accuracy for theme parks, where ticket fraud is a problem. This technology discourages resale of costly multiday passes and ensures the purchaser is also the user.

Automated face recognition, a more advanced form of biometrics, may be the next step at major public venues, including airports, theme parks, arenas and stadiums, and for law enforcement, because it can potentially identify terrorists and criminals in a crowd. This expanded use of personal information technology raises privacy issues because more information is collected and stored for unknown lengths of time and can be shared with private groups and government agencies without informing the public.

Iris Recognition
Iris scanning relies on an individual's iris, in the eye. Unlike fingerprints, the iris remains protected against damage over time, and the scan is very accurate. Scanners can be wall-mounted or desktop units and take an image, so users do not touch equipment, an advantage over fingerprinting and where cultural objections or infection control issues are present. New images are compared to a base scan for each person. They are entered into a key code or card swipe code, similar to other biometric procedures. This technology remains relatively new. However, airports in various parts of the world use iris recognition for preapproved, low-risk air travelers, border control, and passport-free immigration.

Regardless of the method used, biometrics is increasingly accepted worldwide as an easy to use and accurate form of access control technology.

Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, is principal of New York City-based Barbara Nadel Architect, specializing in planning and design of justice and institutional facilities. She is editor-in-chief of Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design (McGraw-Hill, 2004) and writes a security column on

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