When it comes to access on college and university campuses, striking a balance has always posed a challenge. On the one hand is the need to limit access to those authorized to have it, whether that means students who have paid for dining services or faculty accessing labs or other facilities. On the other is the desire to make the process as efficient and user-friendly as possible. Old standards such as traditional door locks and plastic ID cards still serve their roles, but as with virtually every aspect of modern life, technology is bringing new opportunities.
Biometric systems—once typical only of secret government installations and James Bond movies—have emerged as realistic alternatives for making the campus security and access equation work. With increasing affordability and proven success in the college environment, they offer a variety of options for secure access.
“The old thought process that biometrics were only needed in areas that required high security clearance is changing,” says Timothy Ortscheid, government and business market manager for ColorID, a North Carolina-based supplier of identification products. “Biometric applications are now a smart decision in any area a university would like to add convenience, efficiency, or security.”
The main appeal of biometrics is accuracy. Commonly used approaches involve recognition of human hands, fingers, faces, irises, veins or other physical or behavioral traits that make a person unique—and thus can be used to determine a person’s identity.
“Colleges use biometrics for economy, eliminating the need to carry cards and/or pass them on to others, and for heightened security, since only a biometric can verify that you are you, not what you know or carry,” says Phil Scarfo, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for Lumidigm, a New Mexico-based biometric company.
Biometric systems also offer other advantages. As proponents point out, eliminating the chance that students could allow others to use traditional access cards is an important consideration, but not the only one. Another plus is the progressive image that goes with a biometric system. In addition, equipment costs can be offset by savings related to the use of plastic cards for printers, cartridges, support, and management.
Also, with the high level of accuracy, follow-ups are minimal.
“By getting biometrics in a reliable way, you reduce calls to the help desk,” says Edward Chapel, vice president for information technology at Montclair State University (N.J.). “It frees IT people up to do other things.”
Systems in Place
A pioneer in campus use of biometrics is the University of Georgia, which first implemented the technology in the 1970s. The university is now on it fourth generation of hand readers used by 34,000 students a day, according to J. Michael Floyd, associate vice president for auxiliary services. As he puts it, “We’re an old-time user.”
Access to facilities such as residence halls, recreation areas, and dining facilities is what the university’s biometric identification system allows. The technology, from Recognition Systems (now part of Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies) verifies identities by “reading” the unique size and shape of each person’s hand. On average, the process takes less than three seconds per participant, providing rapid access without the need for an ID card.
“Early on, the realization emerged that a photo ID is not positive identification,” Floyd says. “And the process required staff to make a decision when the card was presented.”
The switch to biometrics was initially limited to dining halls, but in 1995, the officials expanded the process campuswide so that it covered dorm and library access, as well. Now it’s a simple matter of encoding a student’s hand during summer orientations, and the system can then be used throughout the academic year.
Floyd reports that the system has been not only efficient, but free of complaints. “Maybe two people a year even question it,” he says, “and no one has refused to use the system. The only problem is if people have a deformity or dexterity issue with their hands.”
If users don’t seem threatened, that may be in how it was presented. “We’re very careful in promoting that this is a hand image and not a handprint,” Floyd says. Since the image has no other application than access to campus facilities, students understand that there is no possibility of personal information being shared inappropriately.
“Hand geometry is the leading biometric technology on campuses,” says Emily Flink, a product manager at Ingersoll Rand. “It looks at the three-dimensional size and shape of a person’s hand.” She explains that images include 90 hand measurements, including length, width, thickness, and surface area. Results are converted into a nine-byte mathematical representation of the hand, which is stored for later use and verification.
At the University of New Hampshire, biometrics were implemented for similar purposes. “We have found hand and finger biometrics to be very useful,” says David May, associate vice president of business affairs. Biometric technology supports door access in the dining halls for staff, entrance to the dining halls for the unlimited meal plans for students, and time keeping for staff.
“Students see it as ‘cool’ and like its applications,” he says. “We have found it to be the only way to really control access to the dining halls when offering an unlimited meal plan.”
At Montclair State, HR applications have proven to be a good fit with housekeeping staff, Chapel reports. “We have a mobile workforce with timekeeping needed in various locations,” he says. “Our systems measure finger width as a second-tier validation along with carding. It provides an extra layer of accountability.”
Despite the popularity of systems based on hand geometry, interest in other approaches seems to be growing. Iris recognition, for example, is being used for a variety of situations. “Iris recognition has been gaining traction as a fast and accurate biometric solution,” Ortscheid says. “Iris recognition systems have been deployed recently for secure access to data centers, medical materials storage, and dining halls.”
At the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, biometrics use has evolved over time to include iris recognition in selected areas. The university relied on fingerprint readers for high security laboratories from 2004 until 2011, according to Robin Brown, director of electronic security in the university police department. Then the move was made to adopt products from IrisID that allow hands-free, two-factor identification with the option of a third, if needed.
According to Brown, the technology is reserved there for only higher security areas such as certain animal research areas or biosafety level-three laboratories. “We centrally control all badging, and so the iris mapping is recorded on the person’s access control card,” Brown notes. “This policy makes enrollment and disenrollment easier.”
While the results have been positive, one disadvantage is a lack of speedy access. “Two- and three-factor identification is not fast,” Brown says. “So loading a building or a room via biometrics takes time.”
How much time? The normal process is to present a card (first factor), which will download a biometric factor such as a fingerprint or iris photo for comparison to the cardholder (second factor), and then the entry of a PIN (third factor). While the first step is fairly quick, the biometric can take 10 seconds or longer.
Even though this may not sound slow, Brown notes that impatience is not uncommon if, say, several people are waiting to enter a facility. “If there are five researchers in line to enter, the guy at the end of the line is frustrated,” he says. “This is not unusual for high security areas like a national laboratory or a military site. Here at a university, the researchers often lack the patience required.”
He adds that some problems can be avoided. “If the equipment is installed at the most ergonomic height, then stooping and discomfort can be minimized.”
While costs vary, campus leaders may be pleased to find that some biometric systems are far from budget busters. In addition, new developments can reduce overall dependence on hardware.
“When we made the purchase we found it affordable,” May says. “I do believe it has many applications for colleges and should be considered when designing projects.”
According to Ortscheid, fingerprint readers can be purchased for less than $250, with an iris recognition device available for about $2,600. “Many of these readers are available with embedded card readers and PIN pads, allowing for multiple factors of authentication,” he says, adding that, by comparison, typical contactless card readers cost about $200.
Increased quality can also be expected.
“The choices of technologies that actually work are narrowing, but the quality of those that do work is improving,” says Brown. “Some technologies are expensive, such as face recognition, because the math behind it is still changing. Simple fingerprint readers built into door controls are common and popular in business and residential settings, but less common in school settings. That is because the turnover of students/staff is high and so maintenance of the system is high and labor intensive.”
Another consideration is that, while equipment itself has become more affordable in recent years, technological advances are at the same time making it easier to embrace biometrics, explains Chapel. “There has been a significant change in services that rely on biometrics,” he says. “They are more cloud-based and networked. You can use capabilities of products people already have on hand, then you can subscribe to an external service for biometric identifications.”
In the past, the need to invest in equipment and then deploy it typically became an enterprise investment, Chapel notes.
“Now with cloud-based services for steps such as face recognition, all you need is a go or no-go back from the vendor,” he says, “That is where the real potential will lay.”
For institutions making an initial foray into biometrics, one approach is to combine old and new technologies.
“Student ID cards are not going away anytime soon,” Ortscheid says. He emphasizes the value of finding logical ways to increase the security benefits of existing card-based systems.
“Adding a simple and cost effective biometric reader allows a university to use its current card-based system,” he says. “You can achieve all three factors of security: something you have, something you know, and something you are.”
In any case, proceeding slowly may be the best choice. “This is a very dynamic and changeable area, and there are all sorts of risks and gotchas,” Chapel says. “Whatever options you’re entertaining, test, test, test. Most of us don’t have enough experience with biometrics to know where risks or breakdowns might be.”
Careful up-front analysis is a must. “Many folks buy biometric tools because of a ‘wow factor,’ believing that high tech is always best tech,” Brown says. “But low tech is often best tech because of budget, labor, time, and culture.”
Brown notes that purchasing items because they are the latest gadgets available does not necessarily make an area more secure. He says, “The tool must fit into the business practices and support the processes that drive the business.”