My opinion: Access market is ready to surf the NFC wave

Why I'm buying into the near field communications (NFC) technology push for door access control


Las Vegas, March 30, 2012 -- I asked my colleagues Gale Johnson and Jerry Levine, the editors of Locksmith Ledger magazine and LocksmithLedger.com what was interesting them at the show, and the one thing that both mentioned was near field communications (NFC). These are the two guys who know the opening and locking of the door better than any other journalists in the industry, and when they tell me they are both really interested in a single technology, I sit up straight. And now, after sitting in on a lunchtime presentation today that was directed by HID Global President Denis Hebert during ISC West, I have to say that I agree.

I agreed all the more after bumping into a colleague who had lost her phone. "It's like I've lost my identity," she said. That friend wasn't talking about NFC, and it's highly unlikely that the phone was NFC capable (few are today, although that is changing), but it falls exactly in line with what Hebert and the team from HID Global were discussing today.

The reality is that with the forthcoming crop of new smart phones that have NFC -- which is a low-power, short-distance communications protocol using a tiny radio – companies like HID are going to be able to piggyback on that same NFC capability to unlock doors. The phone becomes the card/credential that talks to the reader at the door, and the reason this makes sense for security goes back to that lost phone concept. I heard it last year from Hebert, who reminded an audience at a similar function at the 2012 ASIS tradeshow in Orlando that people are much more likely to notice they have lost their phone before they would notice they have lost their access control card.

The technology model for NFC-enabled electronic door access control is amazingly close to what end users already know about managing a card office, except instead of activating cards and handing them to the employee, you would use a software or web portal to remotely activate a digital "key" on the person's phone. The phone's owner then uses an access control app that turns on power to the NFC radio, which in turn sends the signal to unlock the door (this was actually demonstrated live at HID's luncheon).

That remote activation of the credential over the cellular network means you can temporarily grant access (e.g., give a service provider temporary access to your mechanicals room or home to fix something), and you can likewise instantaneously deactivate that key. Tack on additional features for higher security (type a PIN in on that same phone at the same time the phone acts as the card and all of a sudden you're offering 2-factor authentication in the palm of someone's hand).

The trusted phone becomes the holder of the identity key that allows you to open select doors that the door administrator (or homeowner in a residential market) grants you access. What's more is that HID already has test products that uses NFC (many were on display at the luncheon NFC showcase), and while it's all mainly in pilot stages, this market seems poised to race forward with this technology as soon as NFC-capable phones become more prevalent. It even crosses out of the physical access control range into the logical access control range as an NFC signal becomes the signal that you use for logical access to your computer.

And they will become more prevalent, because this technology isn't really being driven by the security industry at all. Rather, it's being pushed forward by NFC applications for credit cards and debit cards that are on your phone. Does that mean NFC will be common on phones by the end of this year? HID thinks so, but I'm not altogether convinced. If Apple adopts NFC capabilities on the iPhone then yes, late 2012 could be the real emergence point, but otherwise it may be slower in the adoption than what the access control and payment card industries would otherwise predict.

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