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Professional Opinion

Access control is a vital part of campus security

The lock and key is going the way of the VCR. An electronic access control system is more convenient, efficient, and secure. Access control has become an indispensable part of an overall campus security plan.
University Business, November 2013

Securing a large college or university campus—really a city within a city—is a daunting task. Many campus police departments are stretched thin dealing with crimes ranging from burglary to sexual assault, leaving them the resources to act only after a crime as been reported.

Fortunately, while most of the nation’s higher education campuses are safe, crime is still an everyday occurrence at many colleges and universities. According to the most recent FBI statistics, 92,695 crimes were reported to college and university police in 2010. Of those, 97 percent were crimes against property. Losses can range from valuable lab or electronic equipment to personal items belonging to students, faculty and staff.

Most burglars are by nature opportunistic and look for easy targets that limit their time and risk of being caught. They look for unlocked or propped open doors to make a quick entry. This points out the need for classrooms, offices and other common areas to be locked when not in use. And it’s vital to keep dormitory entries always locked with unmonitored access reserved only for residents.

Standard key locks can do the job, but come with significant shortcomings. If keys are lost or stolen, locks need to be rekeyed -- an expensive and time-consuming expense. Also, keys are easy to copy and can fall into the hands of criminals. Tumbler locks can be picked and are vulnerable to a process known as "lock bumping" that can open most doors in seconds.

New technology is making the use of keys even more risky. A smartphone app now creates a digital version of keys that can be easily copied by any locksmith. A lost or stolen phone with this app could make campus keys available to criminals. And two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently showed that with as little information as a photograph of a high-security key hanging on an officer's belt they can produce a perfect, low-cost copy using a 3-D printer.

Just one copied or stolen security key would give a criminal easy access to virtually an entire campus. The better alternative is switching to digital locks, using card keys and electronic readers controlled by a campus-wide access control system.

This type of system should be an important part of a modern campus security plan. An access control system offers a number of advantages, including:

  • The ability to automatically lock or unlock doors at pre-determined times.
  • Instantly activating a campus lockdown.
  • Remote control through smartphones and tablets.
  • Easy scalability to accommodate campus changes.
  • Propped-open door alarms.
  • The immediate deactivation of reported lost or stolen card keys, while creating a new card in seconds.
  • Maintenance of an audit trail listing card reader activity that can be valuable in a criminal investigation.

Card keys can be programmed to allow entry into a facility only on specified times and days. For example, a student may have access to a lab on Saturday mornings to maintain an experiment. Adding a computer chip to the card creates a smartcard that will allow a student access to his or her dorm, the recreation center, library, offices and other campus facilities.

Many campuses already employ electronic campus credential solutions that allow a student’s access card to also be used to check out library books, buy supplies from the bookstore, access parking facilities, attend cultural or sporting events, use a copier or purchase vended products or food from on- or off-campus sites, so students no longer have to carry cash or multiple debit/credit cards. An access control solution that is integrated with the campus “one card” solution can help to eliminate the data and timing gaps created when multiple systems and credentials are used for differing purposes, and therefore, helps to create a safer, more convenient campus.

A modern access control system can be hosted on a campus network, allowing it to integrate with other systems to produce a more effective and efficient security response. As part of an integrated system, a card reader can trigger an alarm to start the nearest video surveillance camera to stream live video to campus police. The access system can even add floor plans or maps of the location to provide a dispatcher more information to better handle a situation. The access system can link to other security systems such as mass notification and visitor management.

Some campuses are even integrating security—including access control—with building management systems. In case of a fire, an alarm signals the building management system to stop the ventilating system from providing fresh air and the area is pressurized along the path of egress to clear it of smoke. At the same time, the access system unlocks the escape-route doors and trains surveillance cameras on the area to provide first responders with a live video feed.

It’s clear the lock and key is going the way of the VCR, being replaced by a far more effective and reliable alternative. An electronic access control system is more convenient, efficient and helps make a campus and its users more secure.

It has become an indispensable part of an overall campus security plan. That’s all part of creating a supportive learning environment.

—Patrick V. Fiel, Sr. is an independent security consultant. He has served as public safety advisor for a large national security integrator; executive director of security for the Washington, D.C. Public School System; and is retired from the U.S. Army Military Police Corps.