Biometrics and the Commercial Locksmith

March 1, 2009
The best biometric product will fail to do its job if the door doesn’t close securely or if inferior hardware is present. The commercial locksmith is the best resource with securing an opening with appropriate hardware.

You may have heard the word biometrics more often lately and there is good reason. It’s one of the fastest growing segments of the electronic access control market. While the numbers are small when compared to the total volume of business in our industry, there are many reasons it has the potential to grow faster than the overall market in the near future. There are increased security concerns in general from everyday companies to Department of Defense installations. Recent legislation requires positive
identification of some government employees who have access to an area - in other words a card or pin code will no longer be enough to gain access. A biometric credential that proves the person attempting to get access is who they are supposed to be will be required. This could be a fingerprint, retina, voice or facial scan to name a few.

As a commercial locksmith, you may have never been asked to provided a biometric solution to secure an opening but odds are you will in the near future. This article will prepare you to talk the language of biometrics.

What does a fingerprint reader do? How does a hand geometry and iris reader work? So, what is biometrics with regard to access control?
Simply put, biometrics is the use of a physical characteristic as the credential (instead of a key or card or code) that allows access. A biometric reader works the following way:

Data Capture - A physical or behavioral sample is captured by the system. This is done at an enrollment reader. An example of a physical characteristic would be a person’s fingerprints. A behavioral characteristic might be the way a person signs his name or the sound of his voice.

Data Stored - Unique data is extracted from the sample and a template is created. This might be the unique ridges of a person’s fingerprint. The data is then converted to a template that a computer can recognize and stored on a hard drive like any other data a computer stores.

Data Comparison - The template is compared with a new sample such as a fingerprint when presented at a reader. You present you finger by putting it on the glass of the fingerprint reader or put your hand on the platform of a hand reader.

Accept/Reject - The system decides if the features extracted from the new sample match with the stored template and then the access control system grants or denies access, also known as the threshold. Biometric readers have to take in to account the changes we all physically undergo each day and allow for those changes. For example, we all gain or lose weight each month or we might have a small cut on our finger that could prevent the reader from accepting us. These changes are taken into account by the reader and software by setting the sensitivity of the reader to allow for such changes. The software can tell the reader to allow for a certain percentage of difference between the original data captured at enrollment and subsequent reads.

Biometrics is the highest level of security when it comes to verifying that the right person has access to an area. However, it requires a solid base foundation of good physical security products including restricted key control and Grade 1 hardware.

The best biometric product will fail to do its job if the door doesn’t close securely or if inferior hardware is present. The commercial locksmith is the best resource for end users and systems integrators for help with securing an opening with appropriate hardware.

Generally speaking, biometric readers are part of an integrated access control solution: electrified locking hardware, controllers and software run on a server that runs the system. These systems can monitor the position of the door or report when a door is forced open. They also allow the manager of the system to add or delete access rights immediately and retrieve reports of activity as they happen.

However, some manufacturers are bringing to market standalone biometric products that eliminate the need for anything more than the lock assembly on the door. These products don’t have all the features and benefits that come with an integrated solution; you simply present your finger to the reader and it unlocks the door, so their use is primarily for the residential market. Your residential customers get the piece of mind in knowing that their children have not either given the house keys to a friend or lost them.

Let’s look at some of the technologies in use. The most popular and certainly the most widespread biometric reader is fingerprint. Fingerprint readers like the Schlage FingerKey read the pattern of ridges and valleys on a person’s finger and then compare this image to the pattern of ridges and valleys of a pre-scanned image of the same finger. The access control software determines if that person has rights to that area and allows the lock to release. It’s really not too different than a card reader but the use of a biometric feature, in this case a fingerprint, makes sure that the person who is assigned access is the one getting access.

Hand Geometry is another popular biometric reader, often found in time and attendance systems but now being used in access control solutions. Hand geometry readers like the Schlage HandKey take a 3D picture of a person’s hand at the time of enrollment. They analyze 31,000 points on that hand with over 90 distinct measurements made of the length, width, thickness and surface area of the hand. These measurements are converted into a numerical value called the “hand template.” This template is then stored and the access control software uses it as the credential.

Facial Recognition can be used in access control. These readers measure the geometry of the face and then store that data for use as the credential to grant access. More often, it’s used in surveillance though instead of access control.

Iris and Retina readers are often confused for each other because they use an individual’s eye as the credential, but they go about it in very different ways. In an Iris reader, a camera is used to examine the iris (colored doughnut) of the human eye with those characteristics being analyzed and stored for use as the credential. A retina reader uses an infrared light source to examine the retina (back wall) of the eye, looking at the blood vessels that are present and then analyzing and storing that data for later use.
Each technology has its strengths and weaknesses as well as varying levels of end user acceptance. There are also relative performance issues.

Two of the most important measurements of performance regarding biometrics are False Reject Rate (FRR) and False Accept Rate (FAR). These rates often determine the acceptance by end users of the system or the failure of the system to meet their goals. A high FRR can frustrate the users of a system when they are denied access to areas that they have the right to. A high FAR can compromise the security of a facility by allowing access by people who have no right to the area.

Then you have the general acceptance by the users of the system to take in to account. Some pre-conceived ideas regarding biometrics may need to be overcome. Some users feel that taking and storing their fingerprint exposes them to law enforcement action. Some feel that a hand reader exposes them to germs and other that an iris reader could damage their vision. The chart on page 29 lists the relative pros and cons of biometric products as well as performance results.

The use of biometrics is without a doubt the fastest growing segment of the access control market. Locksmiths who understand this technology will position themselves to benefit from that growth.

Chris Clark started in the industry in 1975 as a commercial locksmith. He currently works for Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies in Southern California.