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Access Control - What is it and Why we Need It

written by: Steven Bowcut, CPP•edited by: Bill Bunter•updated: 5/7/2010

This is the introductory article in a series that will cover physical access control. We will address the basics of what it is and why we need it to the intricacies of enterprise class integrated security systems and everything in between.

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    What it is

    From the earliest dawn of mankind we have recognized a need to restrict access to our home, place of business, or any place that is not completely public and welcome to all who would enter. You could consider that the first access control system was a rock or some other obstruction placed at the entrance to man's domicile. Doors, bars, locks, fences, gates, or any number of obstacles to prevent free ingress have been employed throughout time. In today's world we speak of access control as the system or device that actively grants or denies entry; usually to a commercial, industrial, or governmental structure. Today's systems do much much more that just restrict access to a given space, but that is still their basic function. The same terminology that we will use in our discussion of physical electronic access control systems is used in today's IT world, for good reason, to describe systems that limit or control access to computer networks and applications. Lest there be any confusion, in this series of articles we will be speaking wholly of electronic systems that control access into physical spaces.
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    Why do we need it

    The social reasons for why we have found access control a necessity are the subject of another paper by someone much more versed in psychology than I. The need for some type of access control in every building is generally accepted. Consider the number of buildings that do not have so much as a locking door; very few, if any, such structures exist in civilized society. The obvious reasons for controlling access - to prevent unauthorized access of someone that may steal or damage property or harm people - is just the beginning of the rational that justifies the expense of an access control system. Improving productivity of employees and limiting exposure to liability are two additional reasons that these systems are commonly deployed.
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    Improved Productivity

    If employees are restricted to those areas of a building that they need to access in order to accomplish their purpose for the company will, in many cases, help them be more productive. You can imagine that if the employees assigned to the shop floor or warehouse have access to the administrative or accounting areas of the business, productivity in both areas may decrease. By streamlining the distances between the entry points, work areas, break areas, and rest facilities you can increase the amount of time spent actually performing the employee's assigned tasks. A system that limits access to certain areas during certain times of day can accomplish this streamlining and facilitate the desired affect.
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    Limiting Liability

    The absolute need for a company to find ways to limit their exposure to liability that may be exploited in a law suit is an unfortunate commentary on the condition of our legal system, but none-the-less an accurate portrayal of today's society. If an employer fails to provide the systems and devices that are generally accepted to prevent harm or injury, that employer opens themselves up to what could be disastrous results of legal decisions if there is an unfortunate incident on their property or place of business.
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    Access control systems, of some type, have always been employed in our society. Today's systems usually consist of electronic locks, keypads, card readers, or biometric devices. Although these systems do much more than keep the wrong people out, that is still their basic function. Protecting people and property are the basic reasons for deploying an access control system, but improving productivity and limiting liability help business owners show a return on the required investment.

A comprehensive Review of Electronic Access Control Systems

From the basics of what it is and why we need it to the intricacies of enterprise class integrated security systems, this series will discuss access control in a format that will bring the electronic security neophyte up to speed quickly and yet enlighten the seasoned industry practitioner.
  1. Access Control - What is it and Why we Need It
  2. Access Control Systems: The Basics

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