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Understanding Physical Access Control Systems: How They Work

Gaurav Bali
Gaurav Bali

10th November 2023


In an era where security is a paramount concern for businesses and organizations, safeguarding physical spaces and resources has never been more crucial. Physical access control systems are at the forefront of modern security infrastructure, providing a robust means of protecting buildings, restricted areas, and sensitive assets. In this comprehensive blog, we will delve into the world of physical access control systems, understanding what they are and how they work.

What is a Physical Access Control System?

A physical access control system is a security solution designed to regulate and restrict entry to specific physical areas, such as buildings, rooms, or even data centers. These systems aim to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering secured locations, thereby protecting valuable assets, sensitive information, and maintaining safety.

Key Components of a Physical Access Control System

Physical access control systems typically comprise the following key components:

Access Control Panel: The central hub of the system, the access control panel stores the database of authorized users, defines access rules, and logs access activity for physical locations.

Access Cards or Credentials: These are physical items, such as proximity cards, key fobs, or smart cards, which authorized users carry to gain entry.

Card Readers or Biometric Scanners: These devices are responsible for reading and verifying the access cards or credentials. They grant or deny access based on the information they receive.

Locks and Electric Strikes: Physical access control systems include locks, electric strikes, or electromagnetic locks that can be remotely controlled by the system to grant or deny access.

Software: Access control software manages the system’s database, user privileges, and access logs for physical locations.

Access Control Policies: These are predefined rules that dictate who is allowed to access specific areas and under what conditions, reinforcing security.

How Does a Physical Access Control System Work?

Authentication: When an individual seeks access to a secured area, they present their access card or credential to a card reader or biometric scanner. The system then authenticates the user’s identity based on the information contained within the credential.

Authorization: Following successful authentication, the system checks its database to determine if the user is authorized to access the requested location. Access control policies govern who can enter, and under what conditions.

Access Control Decision: If the user is authorized, the access control system grants access by unlocking doors or allowing entry. If not, access is denied, and an alert may be triggered to notify security personnel.

Logging and Monitoring: Physical access control systems maintain detailed logs of all access events, including successful and denied attempts. These logs are invaluable for security auditing, incident investigation, and compliance requirements.

Remote Management: Many modern physical access control systems allow administrators to manage access remotely. This feature is particularly valuable for large organizations or facilities with multiple entry points.

Scalability and Integration: Physical access control systems can be expanded to accommodate additional users and access points. They can also integrate with other security systems, such as video surveillance cameras, alarms, and visitor management solutions.

Types of Physical Access Control Systems

Various types of physical access control systems are available, tailored to meet different security needs:

Keyless Entry Systems: These systems rely on electronic key cards, proximity cards, or smart cards. Users present their cards to card readers to gain access.

Biometric Access Control: Biometric systems use unique physical characteristics such as fingerprints, retinal scans, or facial recognition to authenticate users.

PIN-Based Access Control: PIN-based systems require users to enter a personal identification number (PIN) into a keypad to access secured areas.

Proximity Access Control: Proximity cards or key fobs are used to gain access by holding the card or fob near a card reader.

Keypad Entry Systems: These systems require users to enter a numerical code into a keypad to gain access.

Mobile-Based Access Control: Access control systems are increasingly integrating with mobile apps, allowing users to use their smartphones as access credentials.

Access Control Cards: These are physical cards with embedded magnetic stripes, barcodes, or RFID chips that store user information for access.

The Importance of Physical Access Control Systems

Physical access control systems offer several benefits that are fundamental for maintaining security:

1. Enhanced Security

Physical access control systems are designed to enhance the security of physical locations. By controlling who can enter specific areas, these systems significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access and potential security breaches.

2. Accountability

Access control systems maintain detailed logs of all access events, including successful and denied attempts. This accountability is essential for investigations, compliance, and auditing purposes.

3. Reduced Reliance on Traditional Keys

Traditional locks and keys can be lost, stolen, or duplicated, presenting security vulnerabilities. Physical access control systems reduce these risks by replacing physical keys with digital credentials.

4. Scalability

Physical access control systems are highly scalable. As organizations grow and add more users and access points, these systems can easily adapt to meet the evolving security requirements.

5. Integration with Other Security Systems

Physical access control systems can be integrated with other security components, such as visitor management systems and building management systems. This integration creates a comprehensive security solution that enhances overall protection.

6. Convenience

Access control systems offer convenience for authorized users. They can quickly gain entry with a simple card swipe, PIN entry, or biometric scan, reducing the hassle of traditional key management.

Access Control Panel and Database for Physical Access Control

The access control panel serves as the central hub of a physical access control system. It manages the database of authorized users, access rules, and access logs for physical locations. The database contains user profiles, credentials, and access permissions.

The access control panel processes authentication requests, makes access decisions, and maintains access logs. It communicates with card readers, locks, and other components to grant or deny access based on the information in its database.

The database within the access control panel is a crucial part of the system. Regular updates to add or remove users, change access permissions, and keep the system running smoothly are essential.

Card Readers and Biometric Scanners for Physical Access Control

Card readers and biometric scanners are the primary devices used for authenticating users in physical access control systems. Here’s an overview of each:

Card Readers

Card readers are devices that read information from access cards, key fobs, or smart cards. There are different types of card readers, including:

Proximity Card Readers: These devices use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to read information from a card without direct contact. Users simply need to hold their card near the reader for authentication.

Smart Card Readers: Smart cards contain a microchip that stores data and provides additional security. Smart card readers are used in applications where higher security is required.

Magnetic Stripe Card Readers: These readers read information from the magnetic stripe on the back of a card. While less secure than other methods, they are still widely used.

Biometric Scanners

Biometric scanners capture and verify unique physical characteristics of individuals for authentication. Common biometric methods include:

● Fingerprint Scanners: These scanners capture and match fingerprint patterns for authentication. They are widely used and highly reliable.

● Retinal Scanners: Retinal scanners analyze the unique patterns in the blood vessels of the retina to verify a person’s identity. They are extremely accurate but less common due to cost and privacy concerns.

● Facial Recognition: Facial recognition technology analyzes facial features to verify identity and has gained popularity in recent years, especially in access control applications.

● Palm Print Scanners: These scanners analyze the unique patterns in the palm of the hand for authentication.

● Iris Scanners: Iris recognition systems capture and analyze the unique patterns in the iris of the eye, offering high accuracy and reliability.

The choice of card reader or biometric scanner depends on the level of security required and the specific needs of the physical access control system.

Locks and Electric Strikes in Physical Access Control

Physical access control systems rely on locks and electric strikes to control entry to doors and gates. These devices can be remotely controlled by the access control panel, allowing for quick and efficient access decisions. Let’s explore some common types of locks and strikes:

Electric Locks

Electric locks are locks that can be controlled electrically. They can be divided into the following categories:

● Electric Strike Locks: An electric strike is installed in the door frame and, when triggered, allows the door to be opened. It is commonly used with access control systems to control entry and exit.

● Magnetic Locks: Magnetic locks use electromagnets to secure doors. When power is applied, the magnet engages, keeping the door locked. When power is removed, the door can be opened.

● Electric Deadbolts: Electric deadbolts are a secure option that provides additional protection compared to standard locks. They can be controlled electronically to lock or unlock the door.

Mechanical Locks

While electric locks are common in access control systems, mechanical locks are also used in conjunction with access control components to provide an added layer of security.

Access Control Software for Physical Access Control

Access control software is a critical part of a physical access control system. It manages the system’s database of authorized users, access control policies, and access logs for physical locations. The software is typically installed on a central server or hosted in the cloud. Some key functions of access control software include:

1. User Management: The software allows administrators to add, modify, or remove user profiles. It’s where you define users’ access permissions and credentials.

2. Access Control Policies: Administrators can create and adjust access control policies within the software. These policies dictate who can enter specific areas and under what conditions.

3. Logging and Reporting: The software logs all access events, providing a detailed record of who entered secure areas and when. It also offers reporting and analytics capabilities for security auditing and compliance.

4. Integration: Access control software can integrate with other security systems, such as video surveillance, intrusion detection, and alarm systems. This enables a more comprehensive security approach.

5. Remote Management: Many access control software solutions offer remote management capabilities. Administrators can control and monitor access from any location with an internet connection.

6. Scalability: Access control software should be scalable, allowing organizations to add new users and access points as needed without a significant overhaul of the system.

Access Control Policies for Physical Access Control

Access control policies are predefined rules and conditions that determine who is allowed to access specific physical areas and under what circumstances. These policies play a vital role in

enforcing security and ensuring that only authorized individuals gain access. Common access control policies include:

Time-Based Access: This policy restricts access to certain times of the day, week, or year. For example, employees may have access to an office building during business hours but not during weekends or holidays.

Location-Based Access: Location-based policies ensure that access is only granted from specific physical locations. For example, a company might restrict on-site employees’ access to their server room.

Role-Based Access: In role-based access control (RBAC), users are assigned roles based on their job functions within the organization. Each role has associated access permissions. For example, an IT administrator may have access to server rooms, while a marketing specialist may not.

Attribute-Based Access: Attribute-based access control (ABAC) considers a set of attributes when granting access. These attributes can include a user’s role, location, time, device used, and more. ABAC is highly flexible and can be tailored to the specific needs of an organization.

Visitor Management: Access control policies may also include provisions for visitors. Visitors might receive temporary access credentials that expire after a specific period.

Access control policies should be carefully defined to align with an organization’s security requirements. They play a crucial role in determining who can access what within the system.

Considerations When Implementing a Physical Access Control System

When implementing a physical access control system, organizations should consider several key factors:

1. Security Needs

Assess your organization’s security needs and requirements. The level of security necessary may vary depending on the nature of your business, the sensitivity of your data, and the physical layout of your facilities.

2. User Authentication Methods

Determine the authentication methods that best suit your organization. Consider factors such as user convenience, security, and budget. Biometric methods, while highly secure, may be cost-prohibitive for some organizations.

3. Access Control Policies

Define your access control policies carefully. Consider factors like time-based access, location-based access, and role-based access. These policies should align with your organization’s specific security objectives.

4. Integration with Other Systems

Think about how the access control system will integrate with other security systems. Seamless integration can enhance overall security and simplify management.

5. Remote Management

Consider whether you need remote management capabilities. For larger organizations or those with multiple access points, remote management can significantly streamline administration.

6. Training and Awareness

Ensure that your staff is adequately trained on how to use the physical access control system. Employee awareness and understanding of security procedures are critical for the system’s effectiveness.

7. Compliance

If your organization must adhere to specific industry or regulatory standards, make sure that your physical access control system is configured to meet compliance requirements.

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Physical access control systems are a fundamental component of modern security strategies, and they significantly enhance security by controlling entry to physical locations. Whether you're safeguarding buildings, restricted areas, or valuable assets, understanding physical access control systems is essential for ensuring safety and security. As technology continues to advance, physical access control systems will remain at the forefront of security, adapting to meet the ever-changing needs of businesses and organizations. Enlite has introduced "Enlite Enable," a touchless access control system that redefines how we secure physical spaces. This innovative solution was developed in response to the increasing demand for hygienic and efficient access control in a post-pandemic world. Its focus on contactless access not only aligns with current health and hygiene concerns but also represents the future of access control. With its user-centric design and commitment to innovation, "Enlite Enable" is shaping the direction of access control systems and is poised to play a crucial role in ensuring secure and hygienic access to various physical spaces.

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