Access Under Control

Physical Security

Illustration by Gary Waters/Corbis​​

Access Under Control
 

Companies spend significant resources on access control equipment. Estimates of the size of the global market range from about $6 billion to around $22 billion, and a recent ASIS survey indicates that 57 percent of U.S. businesses will be increasing access control spending through 2016. 

Upfront costs are just the start. Security professionals take time to determine which doors need to be locked and when.  They decide where to install readers and decide how to pro­cess visitors. Despite the effort spent on the access control equipment layout and maintenance, over time the access control database can become mismanaged. Requests for tweaks to reader groupings and access levels are continuous. One group may want time restrictions for the janitorial crew; another group may need access to one door but want to restrict others. If these accommodations are made without regard for the overall system, over time a complicated tangle of access control levels is created. The next thing you know, security no longer controls access; access control takes charge of the organization’s security, resulting in a chaotic mess.

BB&T, a large financial services institution headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, has protocols in place that ensure appropriate and accurate administration of access control systems at its corporate locations. The Fortune 500 company has more than 1,800 financial centers in 12 states.  In addition, it has approximately 120 corporate buildings–data centers, operations centers, call centers, corporate and regional headquarters–that have access control systems. ​

Challenges

Regulatory developments over the last decade make it necessary to closely maintain access control data. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 require health­care and financial organizations, respectively, to keep strict watch over sensitive and personal information. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 forced a strengthening of internal controls within corporations. More recently, the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard requires that companies keep tight control over credit and debit card data. 

These regulations, as well as others that affect specific industries, have brought more scrutiny to the administration of access control data. Most large organizations, especially those in regulated industries, have experienced an increase in audit activity as it relates to physical access controls. This means that regular reviews of access reports are required in many cases. For this reason, it is critical that the data in a company’s access control database be clean and accurate.  

Numerous challenges can arise from failing to properly maintain an access control system. Maintenance lapses can result in thefts when, for example, terminated employees get into a facility. What good is an access control system if, due to negligence in maintaining the system, people can enter places they shouldn’t? If your access control database has been around for years and has turned into a Byzantine web of access permissions, what steps can be taken to get control over the data? 

Access control database administrators must have an ongoing process of maintaining the accuracy of the data. A standards-based approach must be taken to manage any effective access control program. Standards include defining the types of users in the system–employees, vendors, visitors, temporary card users– and establishing credentials for which each of these user categories will be managed and reviewed. Once the user categories are defined, space definitions and ongoing maintenance procedures must be established. ​

Database management

BB&T categorizes its cardholders into three groups based on the users’ network login ID. There are employees and contractors with a company network login ID; vendors, tenants, and others without a company network login ID; and temporary users. BB&T uses the network login ID for employers and contractors because the network ID is also used in the IT security database. This allows security to match the IT access records to the physical access records. Human resource data was considered for this match, but the bank determined that many vendors, temporary employees, and contractors who have a BB&T network login ID are not included in its human resource system. Matching the network login ID covers a majority of the organization’s users. If the records do not match, the user’s access is terminated.   

For cards not involved in the matching process, BB&T identifies a company employee who can serve as a sponsor for each vendor and tenant. The company conducts quarterly reviews of those cards, during which the company sponsor ascertains whether the vendor or tenant employee still works for the third-party company and still needs the BB&T card.

All temporary cards in the system are assigned to the individuals who have the cards in their possession. The temporary cards may be used by visitors, trainees, vendors, and employees who forgot their badge at home. Information on the cardholder is housed within the access control database. Quarterly reports for all temporary cards are sent to one person who is responsible for ensuring that their temporary cards are accounted for.  ​

Space

BB&T has established criteria and definitions of the physical space in its environment and categorizes space into three categories: critical, restricted, and general. Criteria are established for each category of space. The critical category is reserved for high-risk, critical infrastructure areas, such as server rooms or HVAC sites. Restricted space is office space for departments that the company deems restricted. All critical and restricted space is assigned a space owner. The space owner is then responsible for approving or denying people’s access to that area. General access areas are common doors and hallways.

For each category of space, standards are established on how access is governed. For example, the data center standards might state that janitors or nonessential personnel are not granted access without an escort. Standards also dictate who can approve access to that space and how often access reports should be reviewed. For example, critical and restricted space reports are reviewed monthly or quarterly.

Access devices are grouped together based on the categories of space and the users that access the space. This streamlines the access request process and makes it easier for the requestors to understand what access they are selecting. Grouping as many readers together as possible minimizes the number of possible groupings meaning that there are fewer choices for those requesting access. It also makes it easier to ensure that access reports are accurate, and it simplifies the process of approving access and access report reviews. If all readers for critical space to a building are grouped together, only one approval would be required for critical space and only one report would need to be reviewed.  

However, in some cases, minimizing groupings may not possible. For example, one group of users may be allowed into the IT area but only a subset of that group has access to the server room that resides within the lab. In this case, groups would be categorized by the users rather than the readers.

It’s also important to make sure that access levels and device groupings don’t overlap. This can complicate the request process and the report reviews and could cause access reports to reflect an incomplete list of users who have access to a space. For example, in a building with three readers, grouping one may include the front and back doors, and grouping two may include the communications room. If, in addition to these two groupings, there is an overarching grouping three that includes all three readers, this could create a problem since each of the three individual readers belong to two different groupings. In this scenario, if a request is made to determine who has access to the communications room, rather than producing a report of the communications room reader group, an additional report of the group of all three readers would need to be provided. In many organizations, this second step is missed, causing an inaccurate representation of those with access to a specific area. This can be a major issue if discovered during an audit.

Another way to remedy this issue would be to run reader reports on individual doors, in this example, a reader report on the communications room only. Most access control systems allow for this type of report. However, in companies with a large number of individual card readers, this would require many more reports. The same users often need access to multiple doors, so combining them into groupings that don’t overlap makes more sense than running individual reader reports. As a rule, BB&T does not allow a reader that has been deemed critical or restricted to belong to more than one reader grouping. This ensures that access reports are accurate and complete.  It does, however, require that a user who needs access to a full building, such as a janitor or security officer, request access to each area of the building rather than requesting overarching access to the entire building. This is beneficial, not only for reporting reasons, but also because it requires that space owners approve all users who have access to their space and holds the space owners responsible for knowing who is entering their space. Controls in the report review process can be set up to ensure that a space owner does not remove access for a janitor or security officer. Some systems allow cards to be flagged and would require a higher level of scrutiny before access is removed. Nonetheless, this is a cleaner way to set up access levels and ensures that space owners will review a report of all users that have access to their space, which is what most auditors are looking for.   ​

Clean-Up

If an access control system has become muddled over time, a database clean-up is recommended. A good place to start is to deactivate all cards that have not been used in a specific timeframe, such as the previous six months. Thus there will be fewer cards to review. Then, security can find a common piece of data with another database in the company that provides a match of current employees. Human resource or information security data is best to determine whether active cardholders in the system still work for the company. Of the remaining cards for nonemployees, visitors, tenants, and contractors, security should research whether the card users can be associated with a manager or employee within the company. Security can work with these internal partners to implement an ongoing review of access cards. ​

Maintenance

Performing a regular match of human resource or information security data ensures that cards are deactivated for users whose information does not match that on the card. If a user is not captured in the match, that person should be assigned to a sponsor for quarterly review to determine whether any credentials need to be terminated. Access reports should be reviewed for all nongeneral space to ensure that users still need access to the designated areas. Such reviews should take place at regular intervals–not more than quarterly. An important piece of the access request process is to ensure that all necessary information is captured to support the new standards and to support the report review. For example, if the request is for a visitor, security should capture the name of the person who will have that card in their possession during the request.   ​

Automation

BB&T is working to upgrade the auto­mation of its access control request and audit reporting system by the end of 2015. It is considering software that automates the entire access control database management process from the onboarding human resource system to the access control system. This would include a software interface that would be fully integrated with the information security credentialing system. The ideal software would fully integrate with the access control system where approved access is automatically provisioned with no human intervention.

Cost is a major factor in implementing such automation. Some companies choose to automate pieces of the process. Some use a simple Web portal form that sends e-mails to approvers and ultimately e-mails the request to the team that provisions access or provides a dashboard for the access control team to view requests. Many companies have integrated with human resource or information security data to update their access control system, which allows for the automatic deactivation of cards for terminated employees, vendors, or contractors. Others have found a way to automate the report reviews. Few access control manufacturers provide these additional software tools in combination with their access control software. Some will work with or direct their customers to third-party solutions, while others are beginning to see the need for automation and are incorporating pieces into their standard software package, such as more robust reporting capabilities.  

These efforts may seem daunting, but once the standards are set and the database is cleaned up, ongoing maintenance is initiated, and some level of automation is implemented, the system will be under control. It is imperative that security professionals see beyond the equipment and installation and not rely solely on these for protection. A sound maintenance program ensures that, should access control processes be called into question, security can be confident that the company’s program is under control.  

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Briggette Jimenez, CPP, is physical security manager at BB&T where she manages the company’s security command center, security operations, and workplace violence prevention programs.