Critiquing HID's 'Access Control Goes Mobile' Presentation

By Brian Rhodes, Published Apr 11, 2012, 08:00pm EDT

Are Mobile Credentials ready for primetime?  ASSA ABLOY [link no longer available] / HID, who have invested heavily in the technology, posted a webcast of their joint 'Access Control Goes Mobile' event at ISC West. Using mobile devices to host access credentials is a growing trend, with recent development centering around the inclusion of NFC technology into credential readers, door hardware, and smartphone devices. In this note, we examine the key takeaways from that presentation.

We have embedded the entire webcast here for reference. (note: the player omits timestamps so its hard to track by time):

In the webcast, HID / ASSA makes a number of important points:

    • NFC credentials will be administered differently than traditional keys or cards. HID stated that (mobile keys are) "a quantum leap in access control" by "replicating existing credentials and depositing them on a mobile device". These differences were demonstrated by HID through "over the air provisioning and revocation" via a web based mobile services portal.
    • In what was introduced as "the next frontier" for IT management control, the growing issue of securing "foreign devices accessing corporate networks" was mentioned but not completely addressed. HID states that while "many different companies are looking it today", the problem still has no comprehensive solution. This point was clearly illustrated by a confusing software demonstration that enables secure VPN connections from mobile devices to a corporate networks, but does nothing to secure or ensure safe condition of end point devices.  
    • "NFC does not include support for Picture IDs" and the feature is not roadmapped for development.
    •  HID acknowledged that mobile credentials are not the answer for every access control situation. They clearly stated "card credentials are not going away" and mobile credentials are "not a direct replacement" for card credentials. ASSA declares that "NFC is only a portion of the complete access control envelope" and is most valuable applied to the 95% of openings currently not incorporated in any electronic access control system. ASSA illustrated this point through the following chart they titled 'The Security Continuum':

Analysis

1. Because NFC credentials rely on interoperability between credentials and devices, credential management becomes a huge operational concern. The process of provisioning  and managing NFC credentials will be unlike anything currently being used. This difference extends even to how these credentials are purchased and shared. Since NFC credentials are not physical objects they must have the ability to be transported from device to device. Therefore, because this technology is still in early versions, many of these interoperability issues have yet to be discovered.

2. BYOD, or 'Bring Your Own Device', is a growing trend and security concern for corporate IT/security departments. According to the presentation, 37% of all tablets sold are used in corporate environments, but owned by employees. As we noted in our NFC examination, successfully managing and administrating devices not owned by companies is an awkward situation. While a variety of policy and authentication programs are being developed, no 'clear answer' exists in the market. HID demonstrated a 'soft token' system in an early attempt to bridge this gap.

3. Not supporting Picture IDs significantly limits the value of NFC. For high security areas (where image verifications are used for dual authentication) NFC still requires carrying a badge photo which undermines the main claimed benefit of NFC. Since NFC technology is designed as a low bandwidth, low energy transmission medium, the time required to transmit high resolutions picture files is excessive and would be prone to transmission error. 

4. Despite being positioned as a game changer, we disagree that NFC will bring access control to new doors. Bringing access controls to the untapped "95%" of doors has not occured even though several cheap alternatives to hard wired access controlled door exist. If the major incentive to move to NFC is additional security, consider that multiple low-cost proximity card leversets have attempted to gain the same market. If NFC's convenience is the push, then consider that keypad operated locks (requiring no external credential at all) have been in the market for many years.

Conclusion

The concerns we raised in our initial NFC analysis still stand, and it is clear that 'mobile credential' technology is still being developed and working through growing pains. However, these vendors make it clear that NFC technology will continue to recieve development attention for the near future.

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