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Biometric Access Control Systems: How Do They Work?

By: James Curtiss on November 18th, 2022

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Biometric Access Control Systems: How Do They Work?

Business Security

Access control solutions help businesses protect their assets by restricting entry to secure areas to authorized individuals. Although the specifics of each system vary, one thing they all have in common is the need for an identifier—something the user has, knows, or is—to present for access.

Key cards and PINs (the somethings you have or know) can be practical for access control. However, biometrics is rapidly becoming the first choice for companies seeking the highest level of security. Biometric technology in access control measures a human characteristic, like a fingerprint or iris, and stores the data for comparison. The system then automatically recognizes individuals who match those characteristics and authorizes them to enter the secure area.

Sophisticated and secure, biometric identification is compatible with other access control methods, is easy to use, and offers a long list of benefits.

How Biometric Technology Works

The most common access control biometrics systems use physical traits to identify individuals. Fingerprint scanners, iris scanners, and facial recognition systems all rely on matching an individual’s characteristics against the data stored within the system. The system includes several components: the biometric reader, door controllers, electronic locks, and control software. The control software allows IT, security, or other stakeholders to designate individual access criteria, monitor system functions, respond to security events, and generate reports.

In most cases, employees enroll in the access control biometrics program when they join the company. Security scans their relevant physical feature/features and stores them in the system, creating a template. When someone attempts to access a secure area and places their finger on the fingerprint scanner or stands in front of the iris scanner, the machine compares the captured image to the template. If it matches, the door opens. If it doesn’t, the system denies access.

Access control that relies on biometric data is customizable. It’s possible to grant entry based on an individual’s role, shift, or job description. Biometrics can also secure computers, networks, closets, and physical file storage, ensuring that only authorized users have access.

How Biometrics Benefits Your Business

Using biometric data for access control offers many advantages to your business.

Enhanced security. Unlike key card-based access control, biometric systems eliminate the chance of security breaches due to lost key cards, PIN or password sharing, or spoofing. Someone can gain unauthorized access to your building if an employee’s key card or fob is lost or stolen. It’s also possible for criminals to spoof, or copy, the access data stored on a card and create a fake card to enter a space illegally. Biometric data, in contrast, cannot be lost, stolen, or spoofed.

Convenient to use. Biometric identification works even if an employee forgets their key card. They always have their office key and don’t have to worry about leaving their card at home or in the car or digging through pockets or purses to find it. Facial recognition systems and other biometric technologies also work faster than other access control systems.

Streamlined operations. Biometric technology can integrate into human resources and attendance systems, automatically recording employee attendance, breaks, and time sheets. Human resources and payroll can download precise data from the access control system, streamlining employee management processes. Biometric technology also eliminates the issue of employees failing to punch in or out from their shifts or having someone else do it for them if they arrive late or leave early.

Improve contractor management. With more businesses relying on remote teams or contractors, implementing access control biometric tools ensures that only authorized individuals can access sensitive data.

Cost savings. There’s no doubt that biometric access control solutions require a significant investment. Still, over time they create cost savings for companies. Expenses to issue (and replace) physical access devices like key cards and fobs can add up. Not to mention, if the company experiences a security breach, the recovery costs may exceed the expense of investing in access control.

Health and safety. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing safe, sanitary workplaces is a greater priority than ever. A touchless, biometric security system, such as one that uses an iris scanner, offers a simple access method that reduces the spread of germs. Access control systems can also include additional health-related features, like infrared light thermometers that detect signs of illness from a distance.

Regulatory compliance. Biometric access control helps businesses in industries that manage sensitive data, such as those in the healthcare and finance industries, remain in compliance with federal data protection requirements. It’s also ideal for educational facilities, which must always maintain strict access control.

The many advantages of a biometric access control system do not mean there aren’t any drawbacks. For small to midsize businesses, the initial investment may be cost prohibitive. Cloud-based solutions have reduced the cost, though. A cloud-based access control solution can integrate into an existing security system, lowering costs by eliminating investments in additional hardware or physical security devices.
Privacy is another concern. Businesses need to remain aware of ever-changing federal, state, and local privacy regulations to stay in compliance. It’s increasingly common, for example, for states to require businesses to seek consent before using facial recognition or iris scanning technology. It’s incumbent upon companies to select solutions that comply with these rules.

Another drawback to biometrics is the potential for changes to an individual’s appearance to restrict access inappropriately. For example, an injury to the finger used to create a fingerprint scan can make it impossible to collect an accurate image. Some facial recognition systems may not recognize individuals if they are wearing glasses or a mask. When this happens, the data stored in the system needs updating, which can be inconvenient.

Securing biometric data is also a significant concern for companies using this technology. While it’s possible to reset passwords and reissue key cards, it’s impossible to replace biometric data. If there is a data breach, the entire system will require reconfiguration, which is a monumental undertaking for any organization.

Access Control Biometrics Options

Fingerprint and iris scanners are not the only options for biometric identification. Other types of biometrics include:

  • Facial recognition. This method relies on facial features and measurements for identification.
  • Palm vein. An increasingly popular option, this access control solution measures the unique vein pattern in the palm.
  • Palm prints. Like fingerprints, palm print biometric technology measures the ridges and lines on an individual’s palm.
  • Hand geometry. Hand geometry scanners measure the unique shape of a user’s hand.Voice recognition. This system identifies individuals by the sound waves in their voices.
  • Signature scanning. This uses digital technology to capture user signatures.
    Some biometric access control systems use behavioral characteristics rather than physical ones to identify users. For example, these systems might analyze how someone walks, their typing speed, or how they navigate using a computer mouse or trackpad.

Which Type of Biometrics Is Best for Your Business?

Choosing the right biometric technology can be challenging when your company implements or upgrades an access control system. Cost is always a concern, but several other factors will influence the usability and efficiency of the system.

  • User characteristics. If you are considering using biometric technology for access control, note that the biometric features must be consistent among all users. This means that every user needs a specific trait that doesn’t change over time, is easy to capture and measure, and varies enough between individuals to ensure precise matching.
  • User buy-in. Your employees must be willing to contribute their biometric data and use the system. Data and privacy protection controls need to be transparent and require close monitoring.
  • Ease of use. Any biometric access control system must be easy and convenient to use and quickly grant access upon request.
  • Security. A security failure within the biometric system can put your entire enterprise at risk. The system must include measures to prevent fake, altered, or substituted images from granting unauthorized access.

Pros and Cons of Three Common Biometric Access Control Systems

Fingerprint scanners are the most common access control biometric scanners, thanks to their relative affordability and ease of use. Most people are familiar with how they work since many mobile devices use the technology. However, fingerprint scanners are less desirable from an infection control standpoint, and cuts, scrapes, and other injuries can prevent them from working.

Improvements in cameras and algorithms to identify facial features have made facial recognition more common. Though easy to use, it does present some privacy concerns. When individuals change their appearance—for example, growing or shaving facial hair—the system may block access.

Iris scanners, which use infrared light to capture and measure the unique iris pattern, have some of the same privacy concerns as facial recognition. However, because retinas never change and scanners capture many data points, these scans tend to be accurate.

To learn more about access control, biometric technology, and other security measures for your New England business, contact Sonitrol New England. You can reach us in Rhode Island by calling 401-272-8791, in Connecticut by calling 860-247-4500, or in Boston by dialing 857-445-4009.

About James Curtiss

Experienced security industry professional. Commercial Security Consultant working at Sonitrol New England.