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If there’s an area in your building where sensitive devices or data is stored, you may have considered installing additional physical security measures to keep your business-critical information safe. Physical access control security could be the protection you’re looking for. In this guide, we look at what physical access control is, why it could be a good solution for your business and important physical access control procedures to be aware of.

What is physical access control?

Let’s start by addressing the key question: what are physical access controls and physical access control security? Also known as PACS, physical access controls are a type of security system that is designed to authorize or prevent access to a building, or a specific part of the building.

Access control physical security ensures that only people who are authorized to enter can do so. This means you’re protected from intruders. Physical access control security can also help to create a more seamless user journey through a building for authorized users. Different access levels can be set for different users, meaning that employees can access sensitive areas of a building only when they have the proper authorization. 

Access levels are usually set by assigning access levels to individual users or to groups of users at a particular level, such as executives or contractors. An example of physical access control can be allowing access for all users to a main door using their entry card, key fob door entry systems or PIN, but not allowing access into specific areas of a building that contain secure, sensitive or privileged information.

Previously, security access relied on security guards who would manually approve or deny access at key entry points. Today, physical security access control is digitized. Physical access control systems (PACS) use key fob, swipe cards and personal identification numbers (PINs) to verify authorization, rather than traditional physical keys. Physical security access control policies enable you to control access to your building at a granular level. As well as granting or denying access to individuals, physical access control plans and systems can be used to:

  • Trigger lockdowns in the event of an emergency
  • Limit access to areas that are overcrowded
  • Report the location of individuals in case of an evacuation

Components of physical access control systems

There are several key components that make up a physical access control system. These include:

  • Access points: These are the physical entry points where security controls are installed to prevent unauthorized access. Common physical access control examples include commercial door locks, turnstiles and security gate systems or any type of physical barrier.
  • Identifying personal credentials: Most PACS require users to have a means of identifying themselves, proving that they’re authorized to access the physical space. Personal identification methods include key fobs and key cards, mobile apps, PINs, passwords or passcodes, encrypted ID badges, biometrics and license plate recognition. A recent study found that 60% of businesses use ID badges for access control purposes, but more advanced technologies are starting to gain traction, with 32% using mobile identities, 30% of companies using biometric identification and 25% using license plate recognition.
  • Readers: Whatever type of credentials you choose to verify users’ identity, these will be used at access points where a reader or keypad is placed. Once the user has entered their PIN or swiped a card, the data will be sent to a control panel requesting authorization to enter.
  • Control panel: Data from a reader is sent to the control panel and the control panel will verify authorization. If the credential is recognized, approval will be given and the entry point unlocked so the user can gain access. If a credential is not recognized, a user won’t be able to gain access to the building.
  • Access control server: This could either be on-premise or operate within the cloud. Whether it is physical or cloud-based, an access control server stores the user data, access privileges and audit logs. The server tracks activity, allowing administrators to see reports of past entry attempts and failures.

The PACS must be combined with doors that have electronic locks which can be programmed to open automatically when valid credentials are presented. You may choose to use fail-safe or fail-secure locks, although if you’re protecting certain parts of your building, security protocols may dictate which type of lock to use. Entry doors, for example, must use fail-safe locks to comply with fire regulations, allowing people to exit at any time.

Physical access control authentication methods

Here are some common authentication examples for physical access control , with their advantages and disadvantages:

  • Cards or key fobs: These physical access control security credentials can be programmed with the correct security level for each member of staff to let them in and out of the parts of a building they’re authorized to access. Card or key fob credentials can also double as authentication for business equipment like printers, photocopiers and scanners. However, they are liable to be lost, and it’s not always possible to check who the cardholder is. This means that if an unauthorized person gets hold of an employee’s card, they’ll be able to access restricted areas. 
  • Mobile phones: Mobile apps can be used as a form of physical access control security credential, with entry rights easily configurable for different users and different entry points. Permissions can be easily updated on the app by the administrator, and access rights can be added or rescinded with just a few clicks. Like cards and fobs, mobile phones can also be easily lost. However, most users have password protection or biometrics installed, making it more difficult for hackers to gain entry, even if they obtain an authorized user’s phone.
  • Biometrics: Utilizing facial ID, fingerprint scanning, iris scanning or palmprint recognition, biometric technology provides a high level of security for businesses because these features are unique to individual users. They’re very difficult to clone, unlike security cards or fobs. However, the downside of this physical access control security access method is that biometric technology is more expensive.

Why are physical access control systems important?

The biggest benefit of a physical access control system is heightened security. Installing a PACS system increases the likelihood that unauthorized people can’t gain access to protected areas, and gives operators control over every area of a building. Because security controls can be set at a granular level, operators can be specific about which employees can access which parts of a building. 

A PACS can help mitigate the risk of security breaches from both internal and external sources. According to the 2022 Cost of Insider Threats: Global Report, insider threat incidents rose by 44% over the past two years, and the cost per incident was $15.38 million, an increase of more than a third.

PACS can also help buildings stay compliant with regulations in particular industries, such as healthcare. Protecting rooms where confidential information is stored will help healthcare organizations to be fully compliant and keep patients’ private information safe.

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PACS vs. logical access control

Physical and logical access control systems are both centered around managing who can access restricted areas and information. While physical access security controls restrict access to physical premises and locations, including entire buildings, offices, rooms and IT assets, logical access control is focused on making sure that only the right people can access your digital assets and data.

What is logical access control?

PACS stop unauthorized access to your physical locations, while logical access control stops people without permissions from accessing your digital resources, networks, system files and data.

Logical access control usually works through a combination of identification, authentication and authorization protocols, requiring PIN codes or passwords to be granted access. The three main components of logical security are as follows:

  • Identification: A user must identify themselves, usually by entering an email address or username.
  • Authentication: The user provides proof of their identity. This proof can take three different forms:
    • Something you know’ like a password or PIN
    • Something you have’ such as a keycard or fob
    • Something you are’ like fingerprints 
  • Authorization: Once the system has verified a user’s identity, it will grant access to the system or data.

When it comes to accessing digital data on computers, something you know’ verification is most common.

Both physical and logical security can be combined with physical access control plans to create a more comprehensive security system that helps to protect both your property and data.

Cloud-based or on-premise PACS

Physical access control systems can be cloud-based or located on your premises, and each has its benefits and disadvantages.

When you choose an on-premise PACS, access is managed via controls on computers within your building, usually by network administrators.

Cloud-based PACS can be managed from anywhere, meaning that operators and security teams can control building access even when they are not physically present in the building. Operators can add and remove authentications remotely, run reports and troubleshoot issues from anywhere. A cloud PACS is a flexible system and is ideal for modern business environments.

What to look for in a physical access control system

When considering your physical access control plans, there are a few key elements to think about that will ensure you implement the right physical access control procedures for your business:

  • Security level: Choosing the type of credentials to use will determine an organization’s level of security. Key card access control systems and key fobs can be lost or shared between users, making them a less secure option, while it’s more difficult to breach biometric and mobile technology. 
  • Ease of use: It’s critical that your PACS is simple to use and manage. A user-friendly PACS allows operators to add and revoke access rights within seconds, as well as triggering emergency responses such as building lockdowns. It’s also important that the physical access security system enables operators to easily pull reports, so property owners can understand how users are accessing their building.
  • Flexibility: If you have plans to expand your business, you need a PACS that can be scaled up as your company grows. A scalable solution enables property owners to easily add entry points and locations to an access control dashboard with just a few clicks. 

You may also want to ask yourself the following questions to help you choose the right physical access control system and policies:

  • What are your security concerns? 
  • How many entry points do you need to secure with physical access control?
  • How many users do you have?
  • Do you need to set different security levels within these users, individually or by groups? 
  • What type of personal security credentials is best for your business?
  • Are there any compliance rules or regulations that you need to meet?

Physical access control security best practices

Once you’ve decided on the right PACS for you and the type of security credentials you’ll use, there are examples of physical access control best practices to follow to get the best out of your system:

  • Set permissions levels to reduce the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive areas and information.
  • Choose a cloud-based PACS. With a remote management feature, the system allows operators to oversee security from anywhere, at any time. 
  • Train your team to ensure that everyone knows how your PACS works, as well as how to spot any security risks and how to respond.
  • Create a physical access control policy that details clear requirements for your PACS and the roles and responsibilities of the persons responsible for controlling access. 
  • Integrate your PACS with your other security systems for a more holistic approach to security.

Examples of how a PACS can integrate with your other security systems

Physical access systems are a good way to manage who is coming and going from your building and restricted areas, but it isn’t the full picture when it comes to keeping your property safe.

Physical access control plans can be used in combination with other security measures, such as camera security systems to create a more rounded security strategy that provides full transparency.

The right physical access control security that’s integrated with commercial cameras pairs access data with live images. In the instance that an unauthorized user gets hold of an entry card, they’d still be able to access your building as there’s no way to prove that it’s not the authorized person trying to enter the building. When paired with real-time footage from a camera system, an element of visual verification is added, providing additional identification to ensure that only authorized users can gain access and allowing security teams to respond to breaches instantly.

A video system with remote, cloud-based physical access control policies means that you can policies manage access from anywhere, with the option to block entry or trigger a building lockdown if necessary. It also provides additional reporting capabilities, helping to gain a fuller picture of your security and giving you deep-level insights to improve your security strategy and streamline your operations.

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