NFC: The Next Wave of Access Control

Access cards still play a powerful role in the access control market; however, some companies are turning toward smartphone Bluetooth-enabled and Near-field Communication (NFC) technology. Both are wireless technologies that give individuals frictionless access through secured doors, elevators and turnstiles.


The introduction of mobile credentials has the potential to revolutionize the access control industry, eliminating the need to carry and swipe a card. Instead, a phone’s technology can be used to authenticate identity and grant entry.

“There has been a tremendous uptick in the popularity of mobile credentials,” said Howard Albrow, HID Global’s NPI product line manager of PACS credentials. “A mobile credential can be used via a smartphone to interact with an access control reader in the place of a physical card, which is more convenient, allows greater flexibility, improves privacy and can also lower the maintenance costs of credential management for end users.”

Although most Android devices have had full NFC support for close to a decade, Apple was more cautious about employing the technology, waiting to introduce NFC until it found a solid consumer-use case.

“It was difficult for widespread adoption to gain traction of NFC as a wireless communication method because a major player, Apple, didn’t support it, which automatically eliminated half of the market in the U.S.,” said Kevin Freiburger, Valid’s director of identity programs.

But in the last couple of years, Apple is starting to open that up. In 2014, with the release of Apple Pay to the iPhone 6 and 6+ models, NFC was adopted for the first time with functionality locked to Apple Pay.

“Access is not as open as it is with Android, but Apple is starting to partner with curated partners who are building software and solutions around NFC,” said Freiburger. “As Apple continues to open up NFC, we’ll start seeing more movement of mobile credentials to phones using NFC as a ubiquitous, known standard.”

NFC is already being used in higher education and some airlines are starting to use Apple Wallet for NFC applications in club lounges and for airport security.

In higher education settings, Blackboard Mobile Credential is being used for student ID cards in Apple Wallet. Students can add their ID to Wallet on iPhone and Apple Watch, which allows for a seamless experience across campus by providing access to campus buildings, as well as payment for dining and retail.

“There’s definite growth in mobile,” Freiburger added. “When it is used properly with an application for access control, the security is incredible. Issuers want to meet their customers where they are and that is typically on a phone or on a cloud service.”

Biometric Security Advancements
One of the major advancements in access control is the propagation of biometrics, a category of authentication that relies on unique biological characteristics to verify a user’s identity.

“The systems used to be incredibly expensive, hard to deploy and difficult to maintain and update,” Freiburger said. “Now, the cost has come down considerably and there is widespread adoption of biometric access control systems across many new verticals. Adoption is highest in sensitive markets like national security, information technology and banking.”

The use of biometrics for access is also expanding in higher education. “Some universities are moving away from cards and using a fingerprint for access to dorms or dining services,” said Martin Hoff, Entrust Datacard’s product marketing manager of hardware.

Biometric identification is the only mode of authentication that can unequivocally validate a person’s identity. It is on the rise with retinal eye scanners, fingerprint readers and facial recognition scanners becoming more common.

In some cases, multiple methods of biometric identification are combined with the use of a card (or used in place of a card) for even greater security. Unlike proximity cards, smart cards or keys, biometric security cannot be transferred. A person must be physically present to gain physical or logical access.

“The adoption of biometrics will be a continuum,” Freiburger said. “Over the course of the next five to 10 years, growth will likely accelerate as the prices come down and biometric systems can be inexpensively deployed and upgraded.”

Hoff agreed and added, “Looking ahead, both cards and mobile will be used for access, along with biometrics. They are complementary form factors that can work together in an overall access control plan to secure universities, airports, government locations and financial institutions.”

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