Aug 23 2023

The Technology Behind Biometric Building Access Controls

Fingerprint readers and face recognition, along with video surveillance cameras, are changing how universities guard against intruders, with key geometric data stored at the edge.

Universities must protect both data and students from theft and unauthorized entry, and biometric building access controls play a key role in this effort. Educational institutions are using biometrics to protect facilities such as residence halls and research facilities that store highly sensitive information. Biometric devices include fingerprint readers and iris or palm scanners.

In addition, universities are shifting physical security responsibility from public safety and law enforcement teams to IT departments. That shift has been happening for several years, according to Tom Mechler, regional marketing manager for access control in North America at Bosch Security Systems.

While universities may have been hesitant to use biometric access controls one or two years ago, that’s now changing, according to Bruce Montgomery, state, local and education market leader for Honeywell.

“We’re seeing a lot more adoption into the K–12 and university higher ed space because it’s just so much more efficient,” he says.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a movement toward frictionless technology. That was an opportunity to employ face recognition, Montgomery says.

Although physical building entry cards still exist, organizations are combining them with biometrics as part of a dual-authentication approach. Universities must move beyond the standalone physical access card because bad actors can clone them, he says.

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As someone approaches a video camera at a checkpoint on campus, face recognition prompts the doors to open. Biometric systems let users implement rules such as unlocking doors if they identify a particular person arriving. A system can send a quick alert notification to students or campus security that someone is at the door. Biometrics can help identify people that might be dangerous or individuals that have been expelled from campus.

Biometrics also remove the human delay in identifying people, Montgomery says.

Some devices use a hand-waving technology that allows organizations such as universities to get 50 people through a turnstile per minute, he says.

“We’re integrating those with access control and also time and attendance,” Montgomery says.

Meanwhile, Bosch fingerprint readers perform 3D scans and verification of four fingers in under one second and can identify as many as 100,000 users, according to the company.

Table of contents header — physical security campaign


The Edge Better Protects Biometric Data

Cameras have typically collected face recognition data and stored it on servers, but today, devices such as Honeywell’s 70 Series video surveillance cameras incorporate face recognition chips that process data at the edge, Montgomery says.

“Instead of a hefty, robust machine to process video at some data or network center, now it can be done with a small laptop,” he says.

Performing processing at the edge in cameras reduces total cost of ownership by 30 percent, Montgomery says.

“The more cameras you put in, the more network infrastructure you’ll need,” he says. “Having edge processing means a significant cost savings.”

A mapping process in biometrics allows universities to store a geometric map of biometric data rather than an actual image, Mechler says.

“They don’t store a picture of your face or a picture of your finger,” he says. “They map it.”

READ MORE: How is higher education preparing for quantum computing?

Campus IT then discards the images and stores the maps.

“That does two things: That’s a lot less storage, but, more important, your face or your finger cannot be re-created from the map,” Mechler says.

As students enter residence halls, their badges get scanned along with biometrics such as their faces or palms. A campus network collects data points and vectors that turn into a mathematical equation rather than a face, Montgomery says.

“Each individual’s face is a separate mathematical equation, and it’s stored in that manner,” he says. “It can’t be re-engineered into a face. You just have a bunch of ones and zeros.”

Users can also use the face and fingerprint recognition capabilities on their mobile phones to unlock doors, Mechler says.

“The building access control system has what’s called a mobile credential feature,” he says. “And it allows someone to use their phone as a credential. Typically, it will be a Bluetooth reader or near-field reader in the reader.”

Bruce Montgomery
What’s happening in many cases these days is that the security network is separate from the campus network.”

Bruce Montgomery State, Local and Education Market Leader, Honeywell

How to Create a Lighter Lift on Campus Networks with Biometric Tools

As for fingerprint readers, universities require only a CAT 5 cable to connect them, Montgomery says.

“You’re running traditional CAT 5 or CAT 6 cable to that reader and using that,” he says. “It's not even a blip on your radar with respect to network needs.”

Although biometric devices have typically been connected to the network, biometric security networks now are kept separate from campus networks, Mechler says.

“What’s happening in many cases these days is that the security network is separate from the campus network,” he says. “It’s an Ethernet network, but it’s not the same network that they’re using for their other data. That’s just to keep it separate and to allow the security professionals to maintain that.”

Mechler says that the same type of technology IT professionals use to secure their network works to secure biometric data. That means robust firewall protection, he advises. 

EXPLORE: What you should know about passwordless authentication.

Firewalls block malicious traffic and data packets but let in legitimate traffic at the same time.

“Most IT professionals today are using very good firewall technology and data security technology and password protection to make sure that kind of stuff is protected,” Mechler says.

In addition, REST-APIs connect access control software to third-party biometric access control platforms like face recognition software or palm readers. The APIs enable third parties to design applications that are compatible with the access control software. Biometric systems can integrate intrusion detection, video management, and time and attendance systems.

Mechler expects campus research facilities to continue using biometric access controls, but thinks high costs will keep universities from installing them across entire campuses. Instead, he expects to see more biometric use on mobile phones.

Montgomery is seeing more adoption of biometric access control systems at universities because they are collecting data more quickly than university staff can on their own.

“I’m starting to see it significantly more across college campuses, just because it’s doing the work that humans just can’t do efficiently,” Montgomery says.

Getty Images: uschools (building), Natrot (pattern), A-Digit (people), Filo (icon)

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