Until the late 20th century, people primarily relied on lock-and-key systems to control access in buildings. In the last 40 years, however, we have been introduced with new access control technologies that promise improved security and a range of features that elevate the occupant experience.
From various versions of card and fob technology to QR and barcodes, to smartphones and biometrics —each new solution presents unique advantages and disadvantages that have led to their adoption in different access control scenarios.
“While mag-stripe cards still find some application in existing legacy systems, they are on a clear path to obsolescence due to glaring security vulnerabilities,” states our new access control study. “The ease with which the unencrypted data can be duplicated or even accidentally erased has rendered them ill-suited for today's heightened security requirements. Consequently, they are being gradually phased out, and their previous cost advantage is being nullified by affordable, yet more secure, options now saturating the market.”
By the 1990s, proximity cards employing 125 kHz radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology had emerged to revolutionize the access control market. Proximity cards allowed for contactless detection within a few inches of the reader, enhancing user convenience while also reducing the wear and tear that plagued magnetic stripe cards.
The security benefits of proximity cards relied on them being more difficult to duplicate than magnetic stripe cards, but their unencrypted 125 kHz frequency soon revealed significant security vulnerabilities.
“Despite these glaring security issues, proximity cards continue to hold a considerable market share, with some estimates indicating that over 50% of global access control doors still employ this now-outdated technology,” explains our comprehensive research report. “This persistent usage is largely attributed to legacy access control systems limitation, budget constraints, and a lack of familiarity with more secure, modern options rather than an informed choice.”
The next evolution of the access control card came from embedding a microprocessor in it that could operate on higher radio frequencies, specifically at 13.56 MHz. These Smart Cards not only addressed the security vulnerabilities of their predecessors but also began to introduce future-proofing concepts by supporting mobile implementations across various devices via BLE, NFC, and other wireless protocols.
Smart cards also offer multi-factor authentication with the ability to store biometric data templates alongside conventional identification information.
“The market drivers behind the accelerated adoption of smart cards include their IoT integration capabilities, especially in smart building ecosystems. Industry trends are also witnessing a push for standardization to unify the myriad of features and technologies that smart cards support,” reads our Q4 2023 market report. “Overall, the shift towards more secure 13.56 MHz smart card technologies signifies an industry-wide commitment to enhanced security and multi-functionality.”
Biometric access control actually dates over 100 years to the first recordings of fingerprints by French police officer Alphonse Bertillon. Today, however, the term is primarily used to describe the latest digital biometric technologies such as fingerprint and retinal scanners, or facial recognition software. Due to higher costs, biometrics is especially relevant in high-security environments such as government facilities and data centers, where the demand for robust security measures is paramount.
“We estimate that facial recognition-based solutions are estimated to currently make up 60% of biometric access control sales, with fingerprint technology making up most of the remainder,” our new report concludes. “While biometrics indisputably offer convenience and enhanced security, they come with their own set of challenges. The cost of specialized readers and associated components, such as databases and electronic door locks, can be prohibitively high for day-to-day access use cases.”
Barcodes, meanwhile, have been in use for over 70 years and remain a popular access control solution for events and other temporary access scenarios due to their quick and low-cost implementation. However, the technology faces several challenges that are contributing to its declining relevance over time, including duplication issues and line-of-sight limitations.
Despite these constraints, barcodes will likely retain a niche in specific use cases, especially through the use of newer QR codes in combination with smartphones.
Mobile Access Control
By the early 2010s, the majority of adults in developed economies carried a smartphone that, through its evolving iterations, has been steadily reshaping the access control landscape. Today, smartphones come with many access control technologies built-in as standard, including sophisticated biometrics and barcode readers, as well as BLE and NFC.
Offering a blend of convenience, security, and remote manageability, smartphones look set to dominate access control in the long term but mobile credentials are still a maturing technology, facing challenges such as varying support across mobile operating systems, battery life limitations, and Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) vulnerabilities.
“Mobile access control is experiencing a significant uptick in adoption, although it's essential to note that the technology is still in its early stages. The momentum is palpable, driven by several key indicators that point to a gradual but definitive shift in how access control is being managed and deployed,” our latest market report forecasts. “COVID-19 and hybrid work have driven interest and investment over the past few years but, it is arguably Apple’s 2021 update of its wallet application that really fired the starting gun that has opened the floodgates to widespread adoption of mobile access control.”