The Past, Present and Future of Electronic Access Control

Once upon a time, ‘access control’ meant nothing more than a wave to the receptionist on the way to your desk. Workers and guests came and went without any clear identification or logging of their presence in the building. Some areas, of course, were prohibited, but they were only protected by a simple lock and key. Caretakers and facilities managers carried around dozens of keys to access different offices and meeting rooms, but losing a set created a security risk and could require the whole lock to be replaced.


As office spaces grew larger and more complex, and multiple businesses spread themselves across the floors of huge buildings, an alternative was required. As buildings became more electrified and companies started to rely on computer systems, old approaches to access control were slowly phased out in favour of innovative digital solutions.


The Early Days of Electronic Access Control


The 1970s and 1980s heralded a significant departure from traditional mechanical locks and keys as businesses of all sizes began exploring electronic means to secure their commercial buildings. The initial technology was basic, but the concept of electronic access control systems was beginning to take shape, offering a level of convenience and security that mechanical keys could not match. Early systems were primarily standalone, hard-wired, and consisted of simple electronic locks and keypads; users would enter a numerical code or present a magnetic stripe card to gain entry. Although these options represented a significant leap forward, the security they provided was minimal by today’s standards. The magnetic cards could be easily duplicated, and the codes could be shared, compromising the system’s integrity.


The 1980s saw incremental improvements in access control technology. The introduction of Wiegand technology, which used a special wire embedded within the card that produced a unique electromagnetic signature, represented a marked improvement in security and reliability. This technology was more difficult to duplicate than magnetic stripe cards, enhancing the security of access control systems. But there were still limitations; the systems were generally siloed, with little to no capability for integration with other security systems. The management of these systems was also labour-intensive, requiring physical updates to access permissions and a reliance on manual record-keeping.


This era, however, set the stage for the rapid advancements that would follow in the coming decades. It was a period of exploration and innovation that paved the way for the development of more secure, flexible, and integrated access control solutions.


Advancements in the 1990s and 2000s


The 1990s and 2000s marked a revolutionary period for access control technologies in commercial buildings. This era was characterised by rapid technological advancements and the introduction of RFID smart cards, which significantly enhanced the security and functionality of access control systems. Smart cards leveraged microchip technology, offering a more secure and versatile alternative to the magnetic stripe cards of previous decades. These cards could store more data, support encryption, and facilitate bi-directional communication between the card and reader, vastly improving security and making the system much harder to compromise. This period also saw the emergence of networked access control systems. Unlike their standalone predecessors, these systems were capable of being managed remotely and integrated with other electronic security systems, marking a pivotal move towards comprehensive enterprise security solutions. The ability to monitor and control access across multiple sites from a central location transformed commercial building security.


Advances in biometric technology also began to have an impact on access control, with fingerprint and retinal scanners becoming more reliable and affordable. A shift had begun toward more personalised and secure forms of identification, moving beyond what one has (a card) to who one is (biometric data). These years were instrumental in setting the stage for the sophisticated, integrated security ecosystems we see today, highlighting a period of significant innovation and growth in the field of electronic access control.


The Modern Era of Access Control


By 2018, the most common type of access control technology used by commercial buildings was smart cards, accounting for 47% of all installations (Source: Memoori Research). Biometric authentication technology followed with a 22% market share and the biometric access control market is projected to reach $21.9 billion globally by the end of 2024 (Source: MarketsandMarkets). The rapid growth of biometrics is partly attributable to the increasing demand for contactless and touchless authentication technologies following the COVID-19 pandemic.


The global lockdown gave way to hybrid working and a greater demand for digital integration, and access control manufacturers have met this demand with constant innovations and upgrades. The proliferation of mobile credentials has arguably been the most transformative advancement during this time. This technology allows users to utilise their smartphones, tablets, or wearable devices as access keys, marrying convenience with high-level security. This shift not only reflects the ubiquity of smart devices in everyday life but also underscores the importance of effective cybersecurity precautions.


Cybersecurity measures have become increasingly vital as access control systems are now intertwined with the broader network infrastructure of commercial buildings, making them potential targets for cyberattacks. Moreover, the integration of access control with Internet of Things (IoT) devices and platforms has enabled real-time monitoring and management, further enhancing security and operational efficiency. This era has prioritised flexibility, scalability, and user experience, leading to more personalised access solutions that can easily adapt to the evolving needs of commercial spaces. The reliance on cloud-based solutions has also increased, offering robust data analytics and the ability to update security protocols remotely, ensuring access control systems remain at the forefront of technological advancement and security standards.


Integration with Smart Building Technologies


Integrating access control systems with smart building technologies represents a significant leap forward in the evolution of commercial building security and management. In a 2020 survey conducted by IFSEC Global, the top benefits of using electronic access control systems reported by respondents were enhanced security (75%) and greater control over access permissions (51%) (Source: IFSEC Global). Third on the list was improved building operational efficiency (45%), a requirement expected to become even more essential in the coming years.


Leveraging the power of the Internet of Things (IoT), access control systems are now able to communicate seamlessly with other building management systems, providing an integrated approach to security, sustainability, energy efficiency, and operational functionality. In smart buildings, access control can work in tandem with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, lighting, and even fire safety systems to create a synchronised and intelligent building environment. For instance, an access control system can signal the HVAC system to adjust the temperature in a conference room ahead of a scheduled meeting or ensure that lighting is optimised based on the occupancy of a space to enhance energy efficiency.


This level of integration also opens the door to more sophisticated security protocols, where behavioural anomalies detected by other smart systems can trigger alerts or lockdowns within the access control system. By integrating with smart building technologies, access control systems are not just gatekeepers but pivotal components in the broader objective of creating safer, more efficient, and responsive commercial environments.


The Future of Access Control


The trajectory of access control seems to point towards further integration of biometric and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, which will bring even more personalised and secure access solutions. The evolution will likely see biometric access control becoming more sophisticated, seamless, and multi-factored, blending traditional methods with behavioural biometrics such as gait recognition and voice patterns. These advancements promise to bolster security even further by ensuring access is only granted when a 1:1 match has been made between the physical person and a comprehensive encrypted profile attached to their access rights. Additionally, data analytics, AI, and machine learning will improve the real-time detection and mitigation of potential security threats.


The convergence of these technologies with IoT devices will enable access control systems to make intelligent decisions based on myriad sensor data, further automating and enhancing the security and efficiency of commercial buildings. Together, these developments will contribute to more integrated, intelligent, and adaptive systems that anticipate and respond to emerging security challenges, improve the experience of staff and visitors, and help businesses reduce their impact on the environment.


Access Control Challenges and Solutions


Although modern electronic access control systems provide great benefits, they also present significant challenges. Without sufficient defences, devices can become vulnerable to duplication, spoofing, and cyberattacks. Data handling is also a critical issue. With the advent of mobile credentials and the integration of biometric data, the volume of sensitive information managed by access control systems has surged. This escalation necessitates advanced data protection measures to guard against breaches that could potentially compromise the security of commercial buildings.


To tackle these challenges, solutions have been developed focusing on encryption and the implementation of stringent data privacy policies. Encryption technologies have become more sophisticated, ensuring that data transmitted between access points and controllers is secured against interception. Access control systems are also increasingly adopting blockchain technology to decentralise data storage, which enhances security and integrity by making it much harder for hackers to corrupt or steal data in a singular attack.


Another significant challenge is maintaining cybersecurity in an ecosystem where access control systems are interconnected with other digital platforms within a building’s infrastructure. The solution involves a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity, encompassing regular software updates, penetration testing, and adopting advanced threat detection systems powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning. These technologies provide proactive surveillance against potential cyber threats, enabling real-time responses to any detected anomalies.


To ensure the efficacy of these solutions, collaboration between cybersecurity experts and access control system manufacturers has become paramount. This synergy is vital in developing resilient systems that secure physical access, safeguard digital data against emerging cyber threats, and maintain the integrity of access control systems in commercial environments.


Trust Frontline to Install and Protect Your Advanced Access Control Systems.


As access control systems have evolved to the advanced, integrated systems we see today, Frontline Security Solutions has worked with its corporate and enterprise partners to ensure their people and property are kept safe without compromising convenience or privacy.


We work closely with the world’s largest and most innovative manufacturers, so we have an intimate understanding of developing technologies. While we are enthusiastic about the benefits of these systems, we are also highly vigilant about protecting our customers from potential risks. We only install systems that will benefit our customers’ specific use cases, and we ensure every integration project is completed to the highest standards with maximum consideration given to cybersecurity factors.


We also provide proactive planned maintenance and remotely managed servicing, so every piece of equipment in the building is kept performing to its maximum and is fully guarded against malicious hijacking or cyber-attacks.


The world has moved on since lock and key access control systems. We should know; we’re part of Chubb which developed some of the best mechanical security systems in the world for 100 years before the age of electronic access control. Chubb has kept innovating, and so have we – together, we provide a 360-degree fire and security offering to protect businesses from all threats to their operation or staff safety.


So, whether you need an advanced access control system, intercoms, CCTV, intruder alarms, fire detection and suppression, or 24/7 monitoring, we can help protect your people, property, and assets.


To find out more about our access control installation and maintenance, or any of our integrated systems, contact our team today.


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