Halt! Who goes there?

Controlling access

By Philippa Martin-King

Controlling access to buildings, particularly those open to the public, has become a major security challenge for any institution. The advent of the digital era has provided a myriad of solutions, often controlled remotely, that include smartcards and RFID, video camera control units, biometrics, PIN (personal identification number) codes and the relevant software services.

Scanning a finger print
Scanning a finger print

Sophisticated tracking of identity

Only a few years ago, the most sophisticated form of control at the entrance to any building, whether publicly or privately administered, would have consisted of photographic identity, possibly based on an official national document such as a passport or ID card. Now, paper- or plastic-based passes have given way to many different forms of control, mostly using digital software applications with related hardware devices.

After printed paper-based ID, the first more advanced systems consisted of magnetic swipe cards that simply read the information that was stored on a magnetic strip. The information was standardized by a number of different joint ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and IEC publications such as ISO/IEC 7810, Identification cards – Physical characteristics, produced by ISO/IEC JTC (Joint Technical Committee) 1/SC (Subcommittee) 17: Cards and personal identification.

From magnetic strips to radio waves

Now, less than a decade later, the magnetic card has been largely replaced by smartcards that use a RFID (radio frequency identification device). An RFID has a unique serial number that has the advantage over a swipe card of being able to be work remotely without having to have either line-of-sight or physical contact with its reader. Consequently, there are fewer hardware problems and fewer interventions required. RFID devices communicate with a database that manages the information at distance, tracking and recording a person's whereabouts and, depending on the rights recorded, opening doors to protected zones and providing a variety of other cash management services such as coffee, photocopies and parking.

Miniaturized hardware

In that seemingly innocuous plastic support of a smartcard that so many of us carry around with us in our work places are a miniature antenna or coil and a small silicon chip. The antenna is activated when it detects the magnetic circuit of a radio signal sent by a transponder. The integrated circuit of the chip collects data, decoding or processing it and then storing the information as necessary.

Tracking and sorting goods

Increasingly, RFID chips are integrated in the parts or components of supply chains and manufacturing plants or attached to packaging and goods so that they can be tracked and moved around warehouses and storage buildings. EAS (Electronic Article Surveillance) identifies articles as they pass through gateways, sounding alarms when items are detected in unauthorized areas.

Chips are an integral part of today's global world of trading where shipyards and frontiers witness an unending to and fro of huge containers that, because they all look alike, would be totally anonymous if it weren't for their unique digital identifiers. Thanks to the real-time tracking devices, goods can quickly be identified and sent on their way automatically without additional intervention. Tracking technology helps speed up processes and cut down costs.

RFID is the responsibility of the ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 31: Automatic identification and data capture techniques, for which there is an entire collection of publications of some 1 117 pages supplied on CD. They cover a wide variety of topics stemming from syntax for high-capacity automatic data capture media to radio frequency identification for item management, AIDC (automatic identification and data capture techniques) and RFID conformance test methods.

Digital cameras taking on a new dimension

In addition to smartcards and chips there are other forms of public identification in buildings. Video cameras, previously used for real-time surveillance in parking lots and doorways, are becoming more widespread, not only as a means to control traffic in and out of buildings and to prevent theft and damage to property, but increasingly to identify and monitor specific faces in order to carry out a variety of actions. Sophisticated software packages enable facial features to be analysed, compared with existing profiles and identified.

In addition to the facial features of a person, biometrics can recognize a person based on their fingerprint, hand geometry and handwriting, as well as their iris, retina, veins or voice.

For high-security applications, biometric analysis can ensure that the addition of a moustache or glasses doesn't prevent a person being recognized. To gain access to a high-security vault, it's no longer possible to hack a password that can be dialled easily into a keyboard. Systems can be programmed with a combination of requirements: a password coupled with the blink of an eye into a webcam or a three-dimensional profile photo analysis in conjunction with a specified weight recording. Today, too, computers can surpass humans in their speed of recognition, so information is obtained and dealt with almost instantaneously.


Biometrics is the responsibility of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 37, Biometrics, in its publication ISO/IEC TR 24714-1, Information technology -- Biometrics -- Jurisdictional and societal considerations for commercial applications -- Part 1: General guidance. The test report lays down some of the initial requirements, including legal frameworks, for planners, implementers and system operators of biometric systems.

Ensuring full security coverage

On the level of security coverage and specification, IEC TC (Technical Committee) 79: Alarm and electronic security systems, deals with wired and wireless I&HAS (intrusion and hold up alarm systems) in buildings, whether they are activated by magnetic, infrared, microwave, ultrasonic, acoustic or passive means.

In the past 12 months, TC 79 has issued 12 new publications in the IEC 62642 series, Alarm systems - Intrusion and hold-up systems. The series of publications is not intended to specify any specific type of technology, but to assist insurers, intruder alarm companies, customers and the police in their job of specifying full supervision of particular premises.

Scanning a finger print Scanning a finger print
Swipe cards were the first systems Swipe cards were the first systems
Often smartcards are contactless. Often smartcards are contactless.