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A Lock on Security

​NORTH PARK UNIVERSITY is a private liberal arts college located on the north side of Chicago. The students who attend North Park study everything from business to nursing to theology. Because the school’s campus, which covers a few city blocks, is situated on the fringes of a major city, the administration had long considered good access control essential. Recognizing that its traditional lock and-key system was outdated, it began looking for a replacement a few years ago. It needed a system that could be installed without rewiring, was low in cost, and could be expanded over time.

Steve Clark, director of computer services for the university, was charged with finding the new system. IT had taken the lead on access control planning and implementation because the system would have to run on campus computer networks. The security department was consulted but did not spearhead the project.

What the campus had when the search began was a conventional lock-and-key system. It also had two guards on duty at all times. In theory, campus security kept track of the keys’ whereabouts in a written log. When students, faculty, or staff members left, the keys were supposed to be sent back to building management staff for storage. But, according to Clark, there were many more keys in existence than were accounted for in the written logs. With so many keys floating around, the school was concerned about unauthorized entry, theft, and other crimes.

The university wanted a modern keyless system that would provide better security and easier management. Clark started looking for a solution in 2006. He researched what was available both by reading up on the issue and by attending security conferences looking for new technology. In 2007, he found the keyless Salto Virtual Network. After seeing a demonstration and talking with company representatives, Clark agreed to pilot the system by having it installed on two university buildings.

The Salto system is made up of electronic, keyless locks installed on entry and internal doors. The locks look similar to standard locks and include a handle and locking mechanism. Users wave an encrypted RFID card in front of the lock to gain entry. The locks are programmed only once, immediately after being installed. They are programmed with a hand-held unit called a PPD. The PPD uploads the basic software configuration to the door.

Each user is assigned a card and that individual’s access privileges are programmed into software on the university’s server. Then, the individual must go online to electronically “sign” a waiver in order to activate the card.

All locks in the system are offline. It’s the cards that are connected wirelessly to the central server. Thus, instead of getting information about changes to user access privileges directly from the central database, locks communicate with the central server by using the individual key cards as their network.

For example, say a student named Mary has access to the science lab, and she uses her card to enter that building. Let’s assume that another science student, we’ll call him John, lost his card the previous day and reported that loss to security. In the central software, security has noted that John’s card is lost and has wirelessly sent the information about the lost card to all cards for people who enter that building. When Mary enters the science lab, if she is the first person to do so after that notice went out, her card uploads the information about John’s lost card to that particular door. From that point on, that door will refuse to allow entry to anyone bearing John’s lost card. Changes in access are distributed among the doors in the same way.

This system keeps installation costs low. The school’s maintenance workers can install the electronic lock, and there is no need for wiring. This approach brought costs down to around $700 per door, less than a third of the price of other systems Clark was considering.

This system lets the university monitor access via data the cards collect, and it has audit-trail capabilities.

The IT staff installed the software and configured the system. IT added a frontend component to the Salto software that ties into the school’s enterprise management system. It keeps track of which students are staying in each dorm room, automatically updating the Salto database when housing arrangements change.

Ongoing operation of the system is handled by the physical plant and security staff. The tasks of supplying manual overrides on the front-end system and physical programming of the locks are shared by the two departments. They can grant individual access, or they can grant an entire class access to a building. Access is also granted to vendors as they are hired.

There are six large residence buildings on campus, plus a number of smaller apartment buildings. Clark knew that all of them would eventually need new locks. The pilot program was launched in mid-2008 with plans initially to include only two buildings—the Helwig Recreation Center building and Burgh Hall.

Helwig, which was under construction, would house valuable new sports equipment, and the school considered it a priority to be able to verify that only authorized persons could access it. Burgh Hall, a residence hall built in the 1950s, was undergoing renovation, which created an opportunity for the test as well.

Burgh Hall has four floors with approximately 30 rooms per floor. Every door in the building was equipped with a Salto lock. The installation went so smoothly that another dormitory, Sawyer Court, was added to the pilot.

The university was pleased with how the system functioned during the pilot, so in 2009, it began purchasing more locks for ongoing projects, with the goal of installing the locks first in all of the residence halls and then in specific high-value laboratories.

As of May 2011, the university had equipped 175 doors with the Salto locks; all of the residence halls had at least one exterior entryway controlled by the new system. At least 15 buildings are listed for some additional conversion throughout 2011, with plans to have the new security system applied to at least one exterior door in every building within the year. “The general rule is that any time a door or lock needs to be replaced, it is replaced with a Salto lock,” says Clark.

As a part of the process, the university has also issued more than 6,000 cards for full and part-time students and 700 for faculty and staff. More uses for the locks are emerging all the time. For example, shortly after equipping the dorm with the new locking system, the university learned that students were staying in their dorms over the winter break when the campus was closed. That created a safety and liability issue, says Clark. But, he adds, the practice was easily stopped by suspending access privileges over the break.