Vanguard Award Honorable Mention: UMass Boston’s Access Control Conundrum

Nov. 10, 2023
Biometric-enabled ID cards prove the be the missing link to student access and safety at the university

The University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston), which boasts the third most diverse student body in the country and the third-largest campus in the UMass system, is a fixture of the city. Represented by undergraduates and postgraduates from 136 countries, the university’s student body is its lifeblood.

Its growing population of approximately 16,000 students across its 120-acre campus makes maintaining an up-to-date access control system increasingly difficult. An on-campus security team is available 24/7 alongside a smattering of blue light emergency phones across the university, but UMass Boston’s existing BeaconCard ID and badge access control system had holes in its defenses that needed shoring up.

To remedy this issue, UMass Boston turned to Sentry Enterprises’ biometric fingerprint authentication technology to add a more robust layer of security to the university’s existing card system. The resulting collaboration has been named an honorable mention in the 2023 Security Vanguard Awards from SecurityInfoWatch, Security Business magazine, and Security Technology Executive (STE) magazine.

Campus Guests, Stolen Cards, and Access Control

A major issue with access control systems across college campuses involves the introduction of unauthorized guests into residence halls. Students will often invite others into their dormitories without properly registering them as guests in the system, resulting in a large number of unaccounted-for people in a highly sensitive area.

In addition, the university’s traditional access cards and badges run the risk of being stolen or lost, which increases the likelihood of unauthorized people entering areas they shouldn’t, including parking garages, labs, and other high-risk areas. Using a stolen card, malicious actors can also make fraudulent digital and physical purchases on school websites and in on-campus stores, restaurants, and dining halls.

The Sentry Card, Sentry Enterprises’ biometric access card, offered an alternative form of physical authentication that would prevent stolen credentials from functioning entirely, eliminating a major flaw of physical card access control solutions.

Within the Sentry Card is a microcomputer that is programmed with a biometric fingerprint sensor. The card itself is undiscoverable until it is biometrically authenticated by the user, after which point it no longer activates without a valid fingerprint. This allows the card to serve as a form of physical multi-factor authentication that prevents stolen credentials from working at all.

Over the course of two years, UMass Boston worked closely alongside Sentry and its security consultant, Thin Line Systems Solutions of Whitman, Mass., as well as security integrator BCM Controls, Woburn, Mass., to visualize what implementing this technology in their residence halls might look like.

As the Sentry Card was engineered to work with existing infrastructure, BCM’s installation would be nearly seamless, saving the university the costly trouble of dismantling their systems. It also meant that no additional systems would have to be purchased.

Senior leadership at UMass embraced the platform wholeheartedly and eagerly began work with Sentry, as Jennifer Maitino, Associate Dean and Director of Housing and Residential Life at UMass Boston expounds: “Sentry didn’t just provide test cards and programming equipment. They have been with us every step of the way, ensuring that this project will be a success.”

While the integration of the Sentry Card’s biometric technology into the BeaconCard was designed to be a frictionless process, the student body was not as easy to convince. In a world rife with organizations collecting personal data for their own purposes, students had to know that their credentials would be safe before they were willing to accept the change.

Biometrics and Privacy

Placating student concerns about their biometrics remaining private was a top priority for the partnership. Sentry and UMass Boston collaborated on an educational approach to help students understand the nature of the technology.

“Privacy, first and foremost, is the most important thing,” says John Calzaretta, CEO Sentry Enterprises. “Storing biometric information can be a liability to the university if it gets hacked or breached, so we have decentralized it. All biometric data is stored only inside the device. In this case, the university also does not have to burden themselves with centrally storing student data.”

Calzaretta claims that once people understood how the technology worked in full, it didn’t take long for them to get on board. Students who lose their BeaconCard no longer have to worry about fraudulent transactions or misuse while trying to deactivate them online; instead, the Sentry Card’s biometric fingerprint authorization makes the card completely useless in the hands of anyone but its owner.

“The pass can only be used by the rightful owner, and no data is stored in any database, which provides peace of mind for our students,” explains Christopher Colon, Director of Technology Services at UMass Boston. “Their biometrics are their own and are not being shared or used for any other purpose."

This approach to biometric data storage also ensures that UMass Boston complies with privacy regulations at local, state, and federal levels.

Convenient and Secure Access Control

Convenience is often an issue in areas with tight physical security. More intensive physical security measures can often become a hassle for users and make community spaces and residential areas appear uninviting. The lack of intrusiveness when compared to the level of physical security provided made the Sentry Card an attractive option for UMass Boston.

“The convenience and ease of use of the Sentry Cards was the entry point for us,” comments Colon. As existing infrastructure doesn’t need to be ripped out at the root, there is little impact expected on students and faculty during the transition, and users will already be familiar with the system.

After setting up their online profile, students and faculty members record their biometric information on their Sentry Card. Once the initial setup is complete, they simply approach the turnstiles and present their cards to the readers. If the user is registered in the system, they are allowed entry. Security guards in the dormitories are present at each turnstile to provide an additional form of protection for residents.

Looking to the Future

UMass Boston will first grant the modified BeaconCards to those with access to high-security areas. In the fall of 2024, they will be distributed to incoming first-year students.

Following the successful implementation of Sentry Card technology in the campus residence halls, university leadership hopes to see the same technology utilized in other areas on campus, including parking garages, dining halls, libraries, and campus gyms, as well as high-risk areas like labs and IT rooms.

Additionally, the university looks to integrate this technology with other devices in order to shore up cybersecurity and defend against phishing attacks.

Calzaretta approves of the usage of Sentry Card technology in institutions of higher education and hopes that it will serve as an important contender in the future of physical security and digital identity: “We’ve built an edge computing device that is interoperable with all the different infrastructure out there. We are at a transformational time in physical security, and we have grand aspirations to be a major player in this coming digital economy.”

Samantha Schober is Associate Editor of