Access control in smart cities: improving citizens’ security and everyday life

You often see tragedies in movies where criminals take control of a city by hacking the network and changing traffic lights to create major car incidents. Fortunately, in the real world physical access control acts as fail safe to limit the impact of these incidents, even after a network has been breached.

With a growing number of IoT devices in smart cities, cybersecurity processes must work in tandem with physical systems to protect devices, control rooms and servers from attack and limit the impact of an incident. The foundation of a smart and safe city is a strong network and communication infrastructure. This framework is dependent on facilities and control-systems located around the city – from critical facilities to a cabinet in a park. An intrusion to any of these locations could jeopardize the safety of the whole city.

Protecting critical infrastructure

In 2014 in Portland, Oregon, a 19-year-old boy was caught by surveillance cameras urinating in the city’s drinking water tank. The authorities were forced to eliminate 143.000.000 liters of potentially contaminated water. Intentional contamination of a city’s drinking water network – a  vital element of every city – can cause a lot of damage and put the citizens’ health at risk if not detected in time. While it was good that the incident was discovered thanks to the surveillance system, an electronic access control system via badge or video intercom, as well as an intrusion detection system could have detected the intruder when he approached and used digital audio systems to deter him, preventing any incident.

This story exemplifies why all critical infrastructure found in cities needs to be strictly protected from intruders and other disruptions to ensure health and safety of the citizens. That applies especially in smart cities with inter-connected fields and networks, where access to one establishment might open the door for disruption in other fields. There is no need to be alarmed, but it is necessary to be aware and conscious of the need for physical protection of critical infrastructure. This is why access control today is such an important trend in the market, and is growing at an even faster rate than video surveillance.

Upgrade your access control system

In every city, there is a control room where logical access control processes are in place (e.g. access permissions to computers and devices are protected by credentials). It is required to reinforce the physical access to the room, through the use of an access control system that uses biometrics registered on a badge. These kinds of security measures can prevent incidents from happening before they cause major damage or harm to people and environment.

For critical environments, adopting solutions that combine different technologies – such as video, access control and audio – provides a fully secured access control solution. Using a badge is not necessarily enough to manage the security of a site’s entrances; it is also important to ensure that the person using the badge is the right person. There are several options to improve this process and confirm the person entering is authorized:

  • Coupling video surveillance and the image associated with the physical badge can increase the level of control
  • A temporary QR code can also be associated to the physical badge as a second element of control. Without these two elements, the person cannot get access to a site.
  • Facial recognition can also greatly help to identify a person to control access to the site.

Not only security, but also citizen services

In addition to securing critical services, there are many opportunities to explore where access control can certainly be at the service of the citizens, and some possible use cases are outlined below:

  • Smart parking: Facilitating access to public office parking lots, shopping malls and hospitals, through QR codes sent on smartphones, to make access safe and more fluid. Citizens can log on to the entity´s site to ask for access and get temporary credentials. This helps to avoid unnecessary trips, wastes less fuel and immediately opens the free parking area to access other services.
  • Parking management for disabled people: To fight illegal parking and ensure that only the user who really needs the dedicated parking space can use it, the solution could be to equip the dedicated parking space with a bar completed by a license plate verifier and a badge or QR code.
  • Managing access to historic city centers: Environmental impact today is a major concern and more and more authorities are deciding to manage access to these places in a more controlled way, through the physical integration of network cameras with license plate reading analytics onboard with bollards. This allows access for vehicles with pre-registered license plates (for residents) or QR codes on smartphones previously sent to tourists.
  • Facilities access from visitors and suppliers: Using QR codes in place of traditional entry systems can both improve visitor management and contribute towards dematerialization. It reduces costs associated with traditional physical credentials — with the lowest impact on the environment – for a smarter approach to access control.

Technology can play an important and often decisive role in tackling urban problems. But the smart city of the future is more likely to be defined by quieter upgrades to existing infrastructure and new partnerships that bring more well-being to residents than by flashy new developments that resemble visions of science fiction. The number of connected devices in cities will continue to grow rapidly and cities have focused more intensely on increasing the cybersecurity measures. However, we mustn’t forget that physical security to protect critical infrastructure or other sensitive areas such as control rooms must remain a priority as well. Therefore, city officials should consider upgrading the existing badge-based access control systems by adding advanced features such as audio or video components. In this way, the safety of the smart city and its citizens can be assured.

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