Missouri State University migrates to NFC access technology

While there has been a renewed impetus for implementing enhanced security measures and technologies on college campuses across the U.S. over the past five years, there have been a number of hurdles that higher education institutions have had to overcome. Whether it’s installing the necessary backbone infrastructure for a campus-wide mass notification system or getting students to enroll themselves in emergency communications solutions, many schools have discovered that making their campuses safer goes beyond deploying a few surveillance cameras or hiring a few extra police officers.

Rather than try to tackle all of their security needs at one time, however, many schools have decided to take an incremental approach, making upgrades where they are the most needed at the present time. Among the most prominent security technology migrations in the education market is the move to newer access control technologies such as near field communications-enabled credentials and readers.

Missouri State University recently decided that this would be a good option for their campus and opted to deploy the Blackboard Transact system from education technology solutions provider Blackboard Inc., which would not only help them streamline access control, but also integrate student identification commerce and campus payment options into a single contactless card.

"We’re seeing a move from a security perspective to not only more advanced devices and video surveillance being used, but contactless technologies," said David Marr, president of Blackboard Transact. "Contactless technology has been around for quite a while, but when you start to look at new technologies and communications protocols like NFC, schools are looking at those and saying 'how do we use those and how do we ensure that they are not only more secure than the classic magstripe?,' which we all know is not terribly secure or difficult to replicate, but ‘how else can we use those security applications, that technology, as well as the open protocols to increase speed and increase safety?"

According to Marr, MSU is the process of moving from magstripe card-based technology to  his company’s Transact platform, which he said is "much smarter" and "more highly secure." Marr said some of the benefits of the new NFC credentials include increased speed and reliability, as well as the ability to eventually leverage the NFC protocol to place a student’s credentials directly onto their smart phone.

"All those classic things of trying to get to a read, the contactless cards avoid that. You’re not damaging the magstripe, the magstripe is not wearing, the read heads aren’t wearing out the magstripe, so you have reliability and you have speed," said Marr. "You want speed in a couple of areas; you definitely want speed or the students want speed around food and cafeterias and eating – they don’t like to keep waiting in line and trying to swipe, swipe, swipe and all of the food service providers want that - but also you’re talking about speed at a door and when you talk about security, you want to make sure that you’re not fighting either the elements or mechanic failure or physical wearing of that card when that student is trying to get into that facility.

"What is new is the open standards NFC protocol because it enables companies like Blackboard to leverage that protocol for other type devices. We’re keenly focused and already prototyping mobile phones as the credential rather than the classic physical card. We know that students tend to lose cards multiple times over their career at school, people are less likely to lose their phones, but… when the credential is delivered to the phone and then the NFC-enabled phone can then communicate with our devices; I think that increases a tremendous amount of security options for schools in the configuration."      

Marr added, however, that the industry is still waiting wireless carriers to define what the secure protocol for access control will be before NFC technology can be more widely used on smart phones.   

"Until the phone manufacturers come forward and say 'this is how you write to our secure element on the phone,' we’re ahead of the curve," he said. "So, we’re waiting for the phone makers to catch up."

Marr said that contactless technology has also given schools the ability to enhance access control measures on a much broader scale.

"In the past where schools would secure and look at just some core buildings, they are going much, much further today," he explained. "Not only are they looking at external (doors), but they are also looking at internal doors as well and the reason why is that as students bring devices to campus and learning is no longer encumbered by traditional hours – students are meeting at all times and in impromptu ways in labs, the library or in other community buildings – the schools are having to make those areas accessible 24/7, wherein the past certain buildings were just locked down at certain times and students couldn’t get into them."

In keeping with enabling schools to incrementally migrate from magstripe to contactless cards, Marr said that both types of credentials can be used in conjunction with their access readers. While there have been some challenges related to changing the core software, Marr explained that one of the most exciting technical aspects of the new system at MSU is increased power at the edge.

"We have many computers running at the edge with very large databases and what’s important to that is that you have redundancy throughout system," he said. "If the school has a network failure, those devices still run and hold that information until such time that they get the network fixed. Our devices still run offline and still protect and secure facilities and have unlimited size around the database in order to hold related IDs unique to those students, so business goes on as usual, they fix the line they cut through and boom it syncs back up with the host. It’s a totally different way of looking at redundancy as well as what technology on the edge can do."

There are currently about 60 to 70 Blackboard readers deployed on the MSU campus and the company plans to install about 50 additional units over the summer.  

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