Why Master Key Systems Prematurely Fail

It is rare when a singular event leads to the replacement of a master key system. Usually, there are many symptoms that can be detected before a master key system is fully defective.


It is rare when a singular event leads to the replacement of a master key system. Usually there are many symptoms that can be detected before a master key system is fully defective. As the person who performs service to the system, the locksmith is the first person to discover symptoms and can...


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4. The current status of the key (with the user, lost, returned, ready for pick up).

5. An optional mandatory return date.

6. What cylinders the key can access in the system.

There will always be instances in which areas that are protected by the master key system are violated. When the system is properly tracked, a list of suspects can be developed and the violation can be contained.

A master key system is a tool to provide access control. The integrity of the system is the means to index who has access. When there is no means of indexing, access the system is worthless.

Duplication of unauthorized keys

All processes and procedures can be followed properly and the master key system can still be compromised by the duplication of unauthorized keys.

If the system's key stock is readily available from local hardware stores and key shops, unauthorized keys will proliferate. It is useless to attempt to control keys if persons can take keys down to hardware stores and have as many keys cut as they wish.

Again, the locksmith is usually the person who receives the first indications that unauthorized keys are being used. Anytime a locksmith is handed a key ring, the ring should be inspected for possible unauthorized keys added to existing master keys.

Also, when extracting broken keys from lock cylinders, the key parts should be inspected.

When keys are returned, locksmiths have another instance to perform inspection. Locksmiths should forward reports anytime unauthorized keys are found and explain the implications to management.

Over-tasked Master Key Systems

Sometimes master key systems are misused by implementing key functions better handled by other types of systems. One of these tasks is securing the perimeter of locations. When cylinders are master-keyed more than one key can operate the cylinder. Security is diminished.

Perimeters are usually accessed by many persons (i.e. security guards, emergency responders, executives). As persons move on, perimeters keyed in this fashion are often rekeyed, further taxing the master key system.

For example, consider the need to provide "lock-out" padlocks at a facility. A "lock-out" padlock is required for safety purposes so that a technician can shut down an electrical circuit when necessary. The technician should have the only key to the padlock and the padlock should not be part of the master-key system.

It seems simple enough to dedicate several pages of key combinations within a master key system so that each padlock can be uniquely keyed.

A better method is to develop a separate system for this use. Diversification makes sense especially if the key stock used in the master key system goes public.

When To Replace The System

It is time to replace the system when the one or more of the following scenarios are true:

1. Areas are being accessed; things are missing, and there is no explanation as to who is making entry. When rekeyed, the actions continue. Too many persons are in possession of master keys.

2. The repeated rekey of groups of key combinations for persons or organizations has exhausted the system so that groups of key combinations are no longer available.

3. Persons that shouldn't have certain keys do. When key holders left the job, they gave the keys to others rather than properly turning in their keys. Multiple areas are being accessed by unauthorized persons.

4. Areas that are freshly keyed are being accessed by unauthorized keys. After decoding the keys, it becomes evident the keys were issued but not properly tracked. It becomes impossible to determine fresh key combinations as so many un-tracked keys were issued that control of the area cannot be guaranteed.

5. After a fresh rekey, there are complaints that persons are making entry. When their key rings are inspected, it becomes obvious keys are being cut by local hardware and key shops. These types of keys are being found routinely as keys are turned in or key rings are audited.

Because the master key system is over-used, there is no longer any room to accommodate new projects.

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