The pros and cons of proximity card readers for access control

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Proximity readers are a popular choice for many access control systems. But what is a proximity card reader, and why would you want one? In terms of access control, a door access reader is the first security measure people encounter when trying to enter a space. In order to gain entry with a proximity card reader, the user needs to have an authorized proximity card on their person. Proximity cards and readers use RFID (radio frequency identification) to communicate wirelessly, with authorization data encoded on the cards.

Proximity readers are a great option for commercial building security, as they can be programmed to meet a wide variety of needs. Before installing an access control system with proximity card readers in your space, it’s important to understand the different types of readers available, and the potential benefits and drawbacks of a proximity card reader system.

Types of proximity readers

While many proximity readers may look the same, they can function very differently depending on their power supply and how they connect back to the access control system. There are four common types of proximity card readers available for access control. When installing proximity card readers, it’s important to know which type provides the best security for your space.

  • Wired proximity readers — The most common type of proximity card reader used in commercial access control applications, wired prox readers include Weigand readers and RS-485 readers. Because they communicate using Wiegand protocol, they are compatible with almost every type of access control system. However, Wiegand protocol has been around since the 1970s, which means it’s more prone to hacking. To ensure proximity readers using a Wiegand protocol are secure, choose readers with advanced end-to-end encryption and additional protections against tampering, such as the RS-485 readers from Openpath. These standard prox card readers sometimes include different options, and usually support some combination of RFID, Bluetooth (BLE) or NFC formats. 

  • Wireless proximity readers — Wireless proximity readers are battery-powered to eliminate the need to wire back to a control panel. They are most often used for large deployments in hotels and apartment complexes where it would be cost-prohibitive to wire each individual door. They usually require localized access points throughout the building to communicate with an Internet-connected central control panel. One of the downsides of this type of proximity reader is the need to check and replace batteries to ensure proper functionality.

  • Standalone proximity readers — These decentralized card readers are limited in their functionality as they do not connect back to a control panel. Because they have no data connection, they cannot be managed or programmed remotely, which is why they often include a PIN pad. When installed on the unsecured side of the door, they’re also prone to tampering and hacking, as they store sensitive user and credential data locally. These types of proximity card readers are best-suited for small internal deployments that won’t need added security features, such as a supply closet.

  • IP-connected proximity readers — This more advanced type of reader has no direct connection between the reader and controller. The Ethernet connection allows them to be fully integrated into IT systems for a more automated, flexible security system. However, it’s important to note that this type of system should meet high-level encryption and cybersecurity standards to ensure your space is secure. If your IP is compromised, your building security is also at risk.

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Benefits of proximity card readers for access control

There’s a good reason why proximity readers are so common in offices and commercial spaces around the world. First, they are fairly simple to implement. Proximity card reader technology has been around for decades, and people are familiar with how to use them, so they require little training or ramp-up time once installed.

Proximity cards (also known as prox cards) can also provide a contactless access experience. Unlike swipe cards, prox cards don’t need to be inserted into or swiped through a reader to work. The proximity card has a metallic antenna coil embedded inside that holds encoded data. The proximity card readers use an electromagnetic field to detect nearby cards and transmit data through the reader to the access control panel. If the card is authorized, the control panel sends a signal back to the reader to trigger a door unlock. The proximity technology can also be used in key fobs, clamshell cards, or stickers. This is great for implementing touchless technology to create healthier spaces.

Depending on the access control software, proximity card systems can provide businesses with trackable entry activity, and data analytics for their space. A cloud-based platform like Openpath will provide the most flexibility, giving administrators and facilities teams remote access to manage their access control system from anywhere.

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Security concerns and pitfalls of proximity card readers 

As with any good physical security measure, your proximity card reader needs to be secure and reliable. A well-known legacy access control system may seem like a smart choice, but because this technology has been around for many decades, there are some security vulnerabilities to be aware of. When looking at how someone would compromise a proximity reader, there are a surprising number of vulnerabilities. For example, almost anyone could hack an HID proximity card reader with a device purchased online. If your proximity card reader has any of the following vulnerabilities, it’s time to upgrade.

  • Insufficient read range — The read range is the distance from which the reader can detect a nearby credential. The read range will vary by device. Distance is an important consideration when installing a security system. For example, a turnstile gate or front door should have a shorter read range so that people need to be close to the reader to request an unlock. This will help prevent tailgating incidents. However for parking garage deployments, the read range needs to be farther to account for vehicle size and the ability for users’ credentials to communicate with the reader from inside the vehicle. 

  • Hackable backend hardware — Door access readers are unfortunately a popular target for criminals who want to steal data and vandalize businesses. One thing to keep in mind when installing new readers is backwards compatibility. If you’re running your security system on outdated legacy backend hardware, even the most advanced prox card readers could be exposed to security vulnerabilities. One way to combat this on a hybrid access control model is to use a system with end-to-end encryption at every level of communication, with extra protections against hardware hacking.

  • Data stored locally — Some proximity readers store data at the local level, making it easy for potential criminals to gain access to it. This often-overlooked security pitfall could compromise your entire system. Openpath's card readers are set up as a blind proxy between the credential and control unit, so they offer no value to hackers looking for a way in. They also have built-in alerts against tampering. 

  • No backups or fail safes — In the case of a power or Internet outage, a backup power source is essential to keeping your system up and running. Without a backup option or a failsafe protocol, people could be locked out of the building, or the doors could remain unlocked without you even knowing. Make sure your system offers offline functionality so you don’t get locked out in an emergency, and a way to connect to an alternative power source or backup battery. 

  • Key cards are easily copied — Key cards are one of the most widely used access methods for businesses worldwide. However, some key fobs and cards pose a serious security risk. Many common key cards, like those used with low-frequency HID proximity card readers, can be easily copied with a $10 device. Instead, look for systems that offer more secure prox cards. Openpath uses DESFire EV1 128-bit AES cryptographic cards with digitally signed identifiers because they offer the strongest encryption and security available, with no publicly known vulnerabilities.

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Planning, costs, and installation for proximity card readers

There are a surprising amount of factors that go into choosing the right access control system for your space. When it comes to finding a proximity card reader that works for your building, it’s best to speak with an experienced access control installer to ensure your readers are compatible. An access control installer will look at the locks on your doors, the wiring needed for the system, the amount of space you have, and other desired security features before installing new readers.

Door locking mechanisms

Not all access control providers are compatible with all door locks. However, proximity card readers are generally designed to work with the electric, wired locking mechanisms common in most commercial spaces. Your access control system installer will be able to tell you what type of commercial door locks you currently have, and the types of security systems that are compatible. If you’re starting construction from scratch, consult a security expert to get the best door locks installed in your building.

Mounting specs for prox readers

One of the things an access control consultant will check before recommending a product is the space required to install your desired prox reader. Depending on your space, some proximity readers may not fit, especially if you’re working with a narrow doorway. Aesthetics are also something to consider at this time. The incumbent HID proximity readers can look bulky and dated in a modern office environment. Openpath Smart Readers are award winning for their sleek, elegant design, which can be mounted flush with the wall to blend right into your space. The Openpath readers come in a Standard size, and a slimmer Mullion option for space-saving installation.

Wiring architecture

When it comes to access control, one of the top concerns with upgrading an existing system is having to rip and replace all the old wiring for the new hardware. One of the benefits of proximity card readers like Openpath’s Smart Readers is that they use standard wiring architecture. This means installation is quick and straightforward, and won’t require tearing out the existing wiring. Not all proximity readers use standard wiring, so it’s important to work with an integrator when planning your access control installation to understand the full scope of the project.

Proximity card reader cost

It’s important to have a budget in mind before you start an access control project. The cost of your system will depend on your existing infrastructure, how many readers you need, and the type of credentials you choose. Keep in mind that key cards can be costly to maintain, and you’ll need to order replacement cards frequently. To get the most value out of a proximity card reader access control system, choose a product designed to be future-proof. With a more flexible reader that can accommodate different access methods (like mobile credentials) and connect to other building systems, you’re less likely to need to replace the system every few years to keep up with the most recent security developments.

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Is a proximity card reader system right for your space? 

Proximity card readers are an excellent choice for commercial spaces that need convenient, contactless access control. A proximity reader system allows you to secure office spaces, lobby turnstiles, and parking garages with modern access control solutions.

Before deciding on a system, ask yourself what is most important for your building security. If you want a combination of mobile access control credentials and prox cards, ensure the proximity readers you choose can support flexible credential types. Openpath offers encrypted DESFire EV2 access cards, which can be used alongside convenient mobile credentials; plus Openpath is backwards compatible with many legacy access cards. This means that once you install Openpath Smart Readers or an intercom reader system, you won’t have to re-issue new prox cards to your entire organization.

Additionally, security experts recommend access control solutions that run on a cloud platform, which is often more secure and easier to manage remotely. Openpath’s cloud-based software ensures a smooth transition, with seamless integration with leading directory management platforms to sync users automatically. Plus, the remote platform allows admins to instantly issue or revoke credentials at any time.

If you’re thinking about installing a proximity card reader access control system for your space, schedule a site walk with a security expert. They’ll perform a security audit, evaluate your space, and identify where and what type of system is best for you. Contact the security experts at Openpath today to get started with a custom price quote.

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