Keypads For Access Control Tutorial

Author: Brian Rhodes, Published on May 31, 2018

Keypad readers present huge risks to even the best access systems. If deployed improperly, keypads let people through locked doors almost as if they were unlocked.

However, despite the drawbacks, keypads are still one of the most common choices in access today.

With this note, we examine the weaknesses of keypads including:

  • Revealing Buttons
  • Snooping Eyes
  • PIN Sharing is Easy

Inside we offer advice on how to deploy them securely and examine a type of keypad that overcomes glaring weaknesses.

Operation Described

The function of keypads in access control is dead simple. The door or gate remains locked until the user enters a valid combination string, usually a sequence of numbers. Most access control applications assign each user their own number, called Personal Identification Number (PIN). Unless the user enters a valid combination, the opening remains locked.

Why Keypads?

If these input readers are so terrible, why do people use them? The single biggest 'pro' in using keypads is that no external credential is required. There are no cards or fobs to buy, fingerprints to enroll, and template records to manage. A user is given an access code that is presumably memorized or included in other documents, and nothing else is required.

The lack of external credential results in a lower operating cost relative to 'credential based' systems.

The Problems

Despite being one of the oldest and most used access readers, keypads have huge vulnerabilities. Worse still, it takes no special tools or skills to exploit these problems. While individual units may be better, or even worse, than others at these shortcomings, the biggest problems are:

  • Revealing Buttons
  • Snooping Eyes
  • PIN Sharing is Easy

In the sections below, we examine these issues and address how they undermine even the best access control platform and most secure locks.

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Revealing *******

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Comments (22)

Many keypads on public areas (gated communities, certain buildings) that might require emergency responder access often have a code like "0911" or "9110", which further reduces their overall security.

Hey Brian,

Another good article thanks. Quick comment...not sure about labeling this method of access worst or best or anything else. It can be a very feasible security option in many applications...when considering specific criteria and customer needs. It is one factor authentication and certainly has limitations as you properly point out.

Last comment....many keypads (even inexpensive stand alone types) have non-volatile memory for multi codes/users. So if used effectively will mitigate or eliminate the issue of revealing keys using just one code. Still codes need to be changed for everyone time to time as you suggest.

Thanks.

Thanks for the feedback, Marc.

This didn't make the official "don't" list, but you should not write the valid code and tape it up near the keypad, either:

I definitely agree of course, but have worked at one place (a nursing home) where the code to get out of a secure building is noted above the keypad - dementia sufferers have no idea or quickly forget what the numbers are about so they can't easily "escape"/ wander off, but everyone else is easily and safely able to exit at any time. It wasn't my idea but seemed to work OK in that particular site.

We had these at a facility I used to work at. The scramble pads are pretty neat, especially in a card+PIN configuration.

We have from time to time received the access card from a departed employee and found it to have the code for turning off the BA system written on it! I imagine this might happen with PIN codes, too. Silly people...

And the release of the FLIR One attachment for the iPhone just made it that much less secure:

Good advice. But please don't share with my wife. Making sure the gas knobs on the stove are off stresses her out enough.

Tell her to use her nails when punching in pin codes. No need to explain further :)

nice video... very interesting uses...

Found all information very interesting. Never realized there was so much to consider when thinking about readers and key pads.

Low tech

I agree with this article big time. This has to be the most easily manipulated access entry device. Great examples above.

Most access control keypad use is standalone. However if you do integrate it with a full scale system you need to be aware of what format your system wants from the keypad. If you get a keypad that spits out wiegand then your system may think it's a card reader instead. You might need to you 8 bit output or possible something else. Make sure you ask both manufactures before you order and waste time troubleshooting.

Full Disclosure: I represent ProDataKey but in my sincere opinion, this is one heck of a Keypad both in functionality and aesthetics!

ProDataKey Keypad

It looks good, but that is a 125 kHz (I'd guess 26 bit) clamshell card, isn't it?

Does that keypad RFID reader work with 13.56 MHz formats?

Correct 125 kHz only.

I'd guess 26 bit

Based on this?

Yes 26 Bit. HID compatible.

Great article.

In the last 2 years we've begun received customer requests (a few) for scramble pads for use in healthcare areas such as memory support, team and medicine rooms. In most cases once the project bids the security system is often value engineered and made less secure to get the project back in the black.

I almost always urge my customers to move away from keypads for these very reasons.

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