The earliest known lock and key was discovered in the ruins of biblical city of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria in 7th century BC. Since then it’s been centuries of new types of key and locking mechanisms – from Egyptian wooden pin locks to the first all metal locks invented by the English in the 9th century AD. The patent for the double acting pin tumbler lock was granted to American Physician Abraham Stansbury in England in 1805. But it was later in the 19th century due to the efforts of the father and son team of Linus Yale Sr. and Jr that in 1861 it finally manifested itself into the flat keys with two serrated edges, which can be seen in use even today.
In the last two to three decades, the magnetic access cards integrated with the employee badges have changed the concept of what is takes to open doors? Even today, this has been limited to the commercial markets and did not see its due impact in the residential sector. But as we see in the retail payments industry where similar cards are being replaced by Smartphones using the NFC (Near Field Communications) technology, the landscape can be seen evolving similarly in the Physical Access Market.
The most simplistic mobile access control model is to replicate existing card-based physical access control principles using a Smartphone with NFC technology. The Smartphone would be equipped with a digital key which, when presented to a reader, passes the identity information to an access control system. Based on a pre-defined set of access rights, the access control system would make the decision to unlock the door.
NFC-enabled mobile access control has some basic requirements. First, NFC-enabled handsets are required. Today, even though we have NFC enabled Android phones, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) iPhones have an NFC controller chip from NXP Semiconductors (Nasdaq: NXPI) but so far it has been enabled only for Apple Pay. Second, there must be an ecosystem of devices (i.e., readers, locks, and other hardware) that can read and respond to the digital keys stored in NFC-enabled handsets. Third, there must be a way to manage digital keys. All NFC phones will receive the encrypted keys from a cloud based managed services portal – these keys can be stored on the smart phone when provisioned and the same phone will lose the access credentials when the keys are de-provisioned.
Technologically we are almost there! Some minor questions remain such as what if the phone battery is dead, answers to which may involve using passive NFC backup tags. But the big challenge is the disruption of the existing business models and the huge revenue streams running into billions of dollars for companies, that make, distribute or install access cards, readers and other related access control infrastructure.
Some interesting use cases emerge. In the hospitality sector, hotel guests will be able to receive hotel room keys on their smart phones that enable them to bypass the front desk when checking in. On a university campus, students and faculty will be able to receive digital keys on their smart phones that are configured to operate with the campus access control infrastructure including various readers and locks and to support a variety of security levels and associated access rules for labs, gyms, libraries, offices, conference rooms, or even storage closets and high security file cabinets
Moving beyond the simple card emulation model described above, the mobile access control model can also leverage the smart phone’s smarts (e.g. GPS or proximity sensors/beacons) to perform most of the tasks that are currently performed by the access control system. Instead of having a wired physical access control system, a mobile device with its wireless connection can become the rules engine to make the access control authentication decision. The phone confirms the location, checks with cloud managed services portal whether the employee has the proper authorization to access the area, and ensure that they are allowed access at that specific time. The handset can then send an encrypted signal to the door – Open Sesame!