Key Systems: The First Line of Defense

Jan. 1, 2009
Choose and manage your high security key system carefully.

In the world of security there are a number of areas that need to be in sync with each other. One of those areas is physical security devices and the key system of a facility. Since 9-11 we have seen an increase in onsite security. This type of security is in the form of guard force personnel and early warning electronic detection equipment. 
I would like to direct you through the different areas of key system security. A number of these important areas are overlooked for various reasons. What is the ultimate key system for facilities? To be honest, there are a number of key systems that will provide the protection needed to keep a facility safe and secure. Rather than give you a brand name, let me give you the requirement for a good keying system.

High Security Standards: High security standards have been in use in the United States since the early1960s. This standard was developed for the alarm key switch market. This was before digital push buttons and cards entered the market. Underwriters Laboratories started testing cylinders on how long it took to bypass and defeat the cylinder. Five manufacturers had their cylinders listed under this very difficult requirement. The standard for the past 40 years has been has been UL 437. In the late 1960’s door lock cylinders were added to the growing number of UL 437 listed high security cylinders. Today over 20 manufacturers offer UL 437 listed high security cylinders.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) in conjunction with Builders Hardware Manufacturers Association (BHMA) is developing a new high security standard that will rate high security cylinders in three grades. Once this is approved, UL may change its testing standard to incorporate the most stringent standard of ANSI into their UL 437 rating.

Electromechanical High Security Cylinders: In today’s integrated security systems, we have a new type of key and cylinder that can integrate with HIP Prox systems and be a stand alone access control system for key-by-pass cylinders, and integrate with a mechanical key system. Even though a facility may have a high security cylinder to protect key-bypass, it doesn’t record what time that key accessed a by-pass cylinder and it doesn’t identify the user of the key. This new type of key system integrates with a mechanical high security key system, integrates with an HID Prox access control system and maintains a stand alone access control system within these cylinders and keys and can record the date, time and user that accessed the door.

Sensitive Areas: Access to any electronic security control panels will render an electronic system inoperative. Not only is a secure door lock key system needed, but also the same or a similar key system is needed for electronic control  of cabinets.

Most people feel that if the security control cabinet has a key, then it is secure. They cannot be more wrong. The manufacturers of these cabinets use the most common inexpensive type of key cylinders and 90 percent can be opened with a paperclip and offer only about a second of delayed time before they are compromised.
A number of High Security Lock manufacturers offer high security cam and/or cabinet locks for securing cabinets and they can be keyed into the door lock key system. Look for the UL mark. Underwriters Laboratories UL 437 is the standard for high security cylinders and this is carried over into cam and cabinet locks by leading manufacturers.

Patent Protection: Patent protection offers the ultimate in key duplication restrictions. Patented keys are guarded and protected by the manufacturer that holds the patent. These manufacturers license locksmith dealers, distributors, and end-user facilities to store and cut their own keys. It is not unusual to require a contract to be signed by all users of their patented system. This would be the same as a licensing agreement granting a manufacturer the right to fabricate patented products.

When we say patented key system, we do not necessarily mean expensive key system. If you compare a standard cylinder to a patented high security cylinder, the list price is usually double but the difference is astronomical in benefits. Most high security cylinders will retrofit existing hardware. This expense is then limited to the key cylinder. Manufacturer’s contracts provide the option to phase in the cylinders over three to five years so that normal maintenance budgets can absorb the conversion and sensitive areas are protected immediately.

Key  Control: Another area of concern should be the key itself. Is the key unique to a given facility? Who else has access to the key blanks? The truth is when contracting with high security cylinder manufacturers that offer patented key control, they can guarantee where the key is used. Because all high security patented keys are different in some uniquely patented way, there are different restrictions on their use by the licensees’. Some manufacturers can guarantee that a facility key can be controlled for a geographic area, like the state you’re located in. There are also restricted keys for each country. A North American company may want a North American Exclusive key for their use. The Department of Defense with Worldwide bases may want to be assured that their key could not be duplicated in another country. Therefore they would want a worldwide exclusive key for their use. Manufacturers can do this because of the patented features built into their cylinders and/or keys. Most of the high security key manufacturers hold World Patents on their products to protect their customers.

Durability: There is nothing worse than to have keys bend, twist, and even break during normal use. High security keys are inherently thicker, larger, and are more durable than their counterpart standard keys. Some of the leaders of these high security keys guarantee their keys for the life of the key system against key breakage.
Asking when the patent expires on the key system is important, but also ask how the company handled their old patented system when it expired. Was the transition to the new system costly? Did it require additional labor to upgrade?

Most importantly, find out exactly what is patented. Is the key patented, the cylinder, or both? This is very important to maintaining key control. If the cylinder is patented but not the key, nothing stops someone from fabricating the key and gaining access to a facility.

Usability: Does the existing building key system meet all of the demands of security and maintenance? When reviewing a current or a potentially new system, look for these questions to be answered. Is future expansion built into the keying system? A good rule of thumb would be a minimum of 25 percent of the current system. Is there the correct level of master keying for the customers’ needs?

Is there cross keying in the system that could cause a liability problem? Cross keying should always be kept at an absolute minimum. Cross keying should be eliminated due to excessive wear on the cylinder and keys that are not part of the cross keying erroneously operating the lock cylinder (big liability problem). When the factory keying department adds cross keying to a master key system, they remove all key combinations that would unknowingly operate that cross-keyed cylinder. This in turn reduces the number of usable keys in the master key system.

Master key systems are mathematical formulas that are built on the characteristics of the manufactures keying specifications. All manufactures are not equal in keying capacity of their systems. A good rule of thumb is to ask how many usable keys are available under a single master key section. Here are some common answers, 200,000; 150,000; 90,000; and 3,000. The latter is what standard keys systems can give you. If a facility has 15,000 keyed door, then the 3,000 number is too small.
Convenience only becomes a part of a master key system when interchangeable or removable core cylinders are used. Interchangeable Core (IC) means that the core will go into different manufacturers lock sets that are set-up for IC. Removable Core (RC) means that this type of core only goes into the lockset of the core manufacturer. There are two types of IC/RC - Large Format IC/RC and Small Format IC/RC. The main difference is the size of the key that will enter the core.
Why are these type of cylinders used in facilities? The only answer is convenience of maintenance to remove the core cylinder at the door and insert a new core cylinder. You might ask yourself, does this type of cylinder offer more or less security? The only secure IC or RC cylinder is a high security IC or RC cylinder. The non-high security IC and RC cylinders are too easily compromised.

Key Tracking: Does the manufacturer of the key system you are selling offer key tracking software? Can this system be downloaded onto tracking software owned by the customer? In most cases the answer is yes. This is an important part of physical security.

Cutting keys to a secure system and giving them out without knowing who has them is very irresponsible and another liability problem. Security can be tightened by controlling key distribution.

There are two types of key tracking systems, one to know where the specific key code is being used and the hardware on that door opening. This type of system does not keep track of key users. The second is for security officials to track users of the key system. Some key tracking systems provide both so different users can track what they want in the system. Random key auditing should also be available. Knowing where keys are at all times is important.

Managing Key Systems: Locksmiths who write key systems should be sure that someone at the facility is put in charge of maintaining the key system. When a locksmith designs and pins cylinders for a facility, that locksmith takes on the liability of the key system. Properly maintaining key records assures the customer that there are not unknown interchanges in the key system that would compromise security. All keying records should be maintained in a secure area. Paper keying records should be coded with a system number only and should be crossed referenced with the facility name which is kept on a secure computer in another area. These levels of security are designed to keep any causal observer from viewing records.

Key User Responsibility: Key users should be instructed to keep the locksmith informed when a lock starts acting differently. Examples are: key is hard to turn, cylinder loose, knob/lever falling off the door, door hard to pull open, door slamming when closing, and lastly, any lock or door parts missing. A lock cylinder should never be operated if the key is broken, bent, or twisted. Using a key in this condition may damage the cylinder and may jam or break off in the lock cylinder causing a security violation.

Keys should never be left in a car or unattended. Users should treat their keys like they treat their wallet and never misplace them.

Missing lock cylinders are one of the most serious security violations because the cylinder can be taken apart and a usable key can be made to gain access to a facility. In the case of an SFIC system, losing one of these cores is a serious violation of security because the core removable key information is contained in every core. Once this control key is made, violators can move through a building at ease by removing your lock core and installing their own. Always recommend a UL 437 removable core system with a patented key.

Reliability and Dependability: Go with a high security cylinder manufacturer that produces these cylinders as their main product line and not as an extension to existing lower security cylinders. Check references. Ask your locksmith distributor what they like and don’t like about different systems. Read their printed guarantees to make sure that you have achieved a safe comfort level before moving forward.

Selling and installing a patented high security cylinder and key should be viewed as a partnership with the manufacturer. There is no manufacturer that has not had a problem along these lines. The important question is how did they handle the problem? Did they step up and say they had a problem and we need to fix it right away?

To Rekey or Not To Rekey: Once control of a key system is lost, rekeying is a necessity. Key tracking determines who has what key to what door. When an individual key is missing, rekeying only the cylinder with the missing key is not a big job. The lock cylinder can be rekeyed within the present master key system and new keys issued. The old key combination should removed from the system so it can never be used again.

Rekeying becomes a big job when a master key is missing. The number of cylinders that will need to be rekeyed depends on the level of the master key. Each level of a master key controls a specific number of cylinders. The absolute worst key to lose is the Great Grand Master Key also known as the TMK Top master key. This key controls all master keys and cylinders. The TMK key should never be given out and be closely controlled at all times.

Always remember the ‘rule of ones’. For every one thousand unauthorized key duplications, there will be 100 minor incidents and from that will be 10 major violations which will result in one catastrophic liability problem. A key system should always have Durability, Usability, and Convenience built in so that you have flexibility. Always remember, a secure facility is a safe facility. 

Tom R. Demont, AHC, CAI, CIL, CML, CSI  is the Director of Sales and Marketing for ASSA High Security Locks in New Haven, CT.