A guide to biometric access control systems

In the future we’re told, all of us will gain access to our workplaces by means of the most singular and unforgeable credentials on the planet. Our biometric data. The unique patterns of fingerprints, palm veins, eyes and faces will open doors and track our presence throughout the working day. However, is biometric access control technology up to that challenge right now? Are workers ready to embrace it?

Three types of access control:

Access control systems operated by different kinds of credentials offer varying levels of identity authentication for the buildings we manage.

The kind of objects and credentials we use to power these systems can be broken down into three types:

Something we own:

  • Fobs
  • ID cards

Something we know:

  • Password
  • PIN

A physical property unique to us:

  • Fingerprints
  • Palm vein patterns
  • Iris structure
  • Faces

Of all these methods the use of these physical, biometric markers provide the highest level of identity authentication.

Right now, as tech costs come down and Covid is accelerating the adoption of ‘new ways of working’ - commentators are predicting 20% growth in the ‘biometric’ technology market that will power contactless access control innovation over the next 10 years.

Traditional vs biometric access control - tiers of authentication

Key fobs and cards loaded with digital credentials are among the most insecure methods of access control. They’re easy to lose or forget. On their own, they cannot be uniquely linked to a particular person or used to authenticate their identity in real time. All too often they are shared among workers, while losses go unreported. Passwords and PINs are equally easy to forget and easily shared with unauthorised individuals. Access control apps on mobile; devices might be more secure, but they still have to be switched on and open to be used and they can still be borrowed by colleagues.  

Most physical identity systems can also enhance the transmission of diseases. Fingerprint scanners for example.

Biometric access control, on the other hand, offers the highest level of identity authentication, since these physical attributes are unique to each individual. They can’t be forged, forgotten or given to others, so promise a truly secure and frictionless access experience. 

Integrated with our door entry systems they can match and authenticate data to allow authorised workers and visitors entry to selected spaces, while recording their presence in spaces for security and H&S purposes.

However, some of these methods of biometric authentication are more ‘frictionless’ than others.

Common types of biometric access control solutions include:

Fingerprint scanning 

Fingerprint scanning offers some of the highest levels of accuracy offered by biometric solutions  with a typical FRR (False Rejection Rate) of 0.1% it has proved to be a reliable technology that is well understood within the marketplace. However, dirt, wetness and damage to the finger can affect the accuracy of a scan - and processing speeds for fingerprint matching can be slow.

Palm vein scanning  

Palm Vein Scanning uses infrared light to map the unique internal vein structure inside your hand. It has repeatedly been shown to be one of the most accurate and reliable means of biometric scanning with a typical FRR of only 0.01% . As it scans internal physical structures it has a high level of inherent security and protection against spoofing. However, it is not widely recognised or used as a biometric ID in most workplaces.

Both fingerprint and palm vein scanning can be operated in contactless ways, but following the Covid pandemic they have diminished in popularity as a preferred future solution.

Iris recognition

Iris recognition uses digital camera technology supported by infrared illumination to take images of the venal patterns of the human eye. A usable image of the iris can be taken from a distance of between 5 and 25 cms. Performed in the correct conditions Iris scanning tech can produce fast results and has a negligible False Match Rate. While iris recognition scanning scores highly for accuracy, the technology is still highly specialised and can be expensive to install and maintain.

Facial recognition

Facial recognition software maps the human face by measuring the distance between the eyes, the distance from the chin to the forehead, and various other critical identification points. These unique facial characteristics are converted into a template or ‘facial print’ of a person that is then stored in a database. In access control systems, images of faces are captured by cameras and compared to this database of facial prints. If there is a match with an authorised person, entry points can be automatically unlocked and opened, if not, entry can be denied.

Facial recognition - a fast improving technology

False acceptance rates (FAR) for facial recognition technology have traditionally been the highest of all the biometric access control methods.

In one study 1.3% of faces were matched mistakenly, while 2.6% of database matches were mistakenly rejected.

However, powered by machine learning, the accuracy of these systems’ matching algorithms are constantly improving and learning from their own mistakes.

Performance is continually being enhanced by the use of 3D cameras, ‘liveness’ detection methods, textural sensors and vascular biometrics. These advances are improving processing capabilities, and guarding against spoofing through the use of images and rubber masks.

Facial recognition access control can work in a fast and seamless way. Some of them are now even able to correctly identify users wearing face masks for Covid safety.  Many solutions can capture facial features in a matter of seconds as individuals pass through an entry point. 

Compare that to the process of stopping to hold your finger or palm up to a scanner, or aligning your eyes with a lens at a particular distance for iris recognition.

Considerations for installation of biometric access control systems

They can be expensive

Although the technology has been coming down in price in recent years, with more mainstream adoption of the tech, biometric access control can still be an expensive option.

They can be complex to install

The complexity of installation and operation can be a challenge. The way cameras and sensors are set up and positioned requires real expertise if they are going to work properly. Iris recognition scanners need to be aligned and calibrated precisely to successfully capture an image of the eye. Likewise, cameras designed for facial recognition need to be positioned in particular ways to ensure the clearest, matchable images can be captured.

Will your workers accept biometrics?

There are also myriad practical and privacy concerns with the collection and storage of personal data.

Just the process of collecting finger prints and Iris images may feel particularly invasive. Similarly, the activity of photographing your workers may feel like a big logistical challenge and a test of trust. Some solutions are now getting round this by allowing workers to use apps to upload their own facial images via teir smartphones, giving them a greater sense of control and involvement in the process.

At the same time, the idea of companies holding images of their workers in databases managed by third party companies, may also be a concern for employees. However, overcoming workers’ privacy fears may only require a bit of education and information sharing. For example, most facial recognition software will not store images of workers’ faces, but instead convert them into different kinds of data for processing. This, together, with privacy and data sharing undertakings could give workers great peace of mind.

The good news is that lots of the latest research into attitudes around the use of biometrics show that younger people are now more accepting of their use, particularly if they can see the benefits to the quality of their working lives.

75% of 16 to 24-year-olds, or ‘Generation Z’, saY they would have no problem using biometric security 

The challenge of integration

Then there is the work that needs to be done to integrate with existing or new access control, security and building management software. Choosing the specialists who can advise on the hardware with the flexibility and APIs to support future change and innovation is central to the success of any access control project. The quality of the interfaces that we use to control and manage access privileges and audit movements throughout the business will make the difference between the success and failure of an implementation.

Biometric access control is the future

Biometrics promise to bring the highest level of automated, identity verification to our access control systems. There are different options on the market with different price points and offering different accuracy levels. Among them facial recognition technology has come of age. This tech is offering some of the most compelling, frictionless experiences for businesses wanting to upgrade their smart security and occupancy management.


Access Control

Dan Bradding
Written by Dan Bradding

Dan is a systems integration specialist and Director at Ace Fire and Security.