Locks and Keys: Old and New

Locks and Keys: Old and New

The first line of defense against intruders is to keep them outout of your building, out of your server room, out of your telecommunications closets. In the past this was easier. The locked or guarded computer room has historically been the primary means of protecting an organization's computer equipment and information from physical intrusion and unrestricted access. The terminals that were on desktops were very thin clients, "dumb terminals" in fact, capable of manipulating data only in the mainframe. In most organizations these days, everyone has a workstation, from which information can be removed easily on a USB memory stick or floppy disk, for instance. Printers, from which documents can be collected, are distributed around the office. Locking up is harder in this kind of environment, but it still is a good idea. Kick the janitor out of the telecommunications closet and spill the cleaning supply storage shelves into the hallway. Boot the network administrators out of the server room and put on a combination lock. Gather up the backup tapes and the old hard drives and installation CDs for operating systems and office applications, and store them in a locked metal cabinet.

To gain access to a locked facility, a user should have to pass an authentication test. Remember from Chapter 3 that there are three classic ways in which you identify yourself (i.e., prove that you are who you say you are):

  • What you knowfor example, a password.

  • What you havefor example, a key, a token, a badge, or a smart card.

  • What you arefor example, the fingerprint on your finger (which matches the one on file).

All of these authentication techniques can be used for physical security (e.g., building or computer room access) as well as for system access control. When a smart card or a fingerprint is used for computer access, it's usually only a first step. Passwords are typically required as well. When two distinct techniques are used for authentication in this way, it's called two-factor authentication. One factor is something you have; for example, you present your smart card or have your fingerprint or voiceprint scanned. The other factor is something you know; for example, you type a personal identification number (PIN) or a password into the system. Multifactor identification systems promote a "defense in depth" environment.

Hints for Keeping Intruders Out

Don't forget that the front door isn't the only way into your facility. Be careful about:

Dropped ceilings

Be sure the walls extend above the dropped ceiling so intruders can't climb over the walls.

Raised floors

Be sure the walls extend down beyond the raised floor so intruders can't crawl under the raised floor.

Air ducts

Be sure the air ducts are small enough so intruders can't crawl through them.

Glass walls

They're too easy to break, and breakage will cause a lot of damage. People can also look through them and potentially get access to sensitive information that way.


Follow the lead of several national monuments and take a digital photograph. Sneaks don't like to be documented. Perhaps you can use the photo on a "guest ID" badge so it can't be pocketed and reused by someone else.

Network connections

Intruders can't sneak in over communications lines (it just seems that way), but they can cause a lot of damage by unplugging or cutting cables. Physical access to cabling also opens up the possibility of wiretapping. Current standards require that wiring pathways and spaces be kept locked.

Some organizations add another dimension of security to a locked facility by using surveillance devices, such as closed-circuit television and more sophisticated access detectors that use infrared, ultrasonic, laser, or audio technologies. Advanced digital video recorders can record multiple cameras and cause an alarm when images change, such as people appearing in certain hallways or going through certain doors.

Highly secure facilities can install elaborate turnstiles called mantraps (see Figure). Systems of this kind route personnel through a double-doored facility in which you show a badge to a guard or are subjected to verification techniques, such as weight checks (to ensure against your entering the facility with an unauthorized buddy), key checks, and biometric checks, such as those described later. If you fail to pass the tests, you are trapped between the double doors, unable to enter or exit the facility until a security officer investigates the incident!

A mantrap

Types of Locks

In addition to locking up buildings and computer rooms, you can also secure your computer, your network, your disk drives, and your disks.

Here are two lock examples:

Equipment locks

The simplest way to keep someone from walking out with your PC, router, switch, or other network device is simply to bolt it down. Computers, workstations, and cables may also be equipped with locks that can be unlocked only by special keys, electronic tokens, or smart cards.

Cryptographic locks

Some ultra-secure products are equipped with electronic devices known as smart keys. These keys are used to load initial cryptographic key information (usually supplied by a government agency) into the product. They typically have tamper-detection circuits, which erase the secure key storage if the circuit is broken.


A token is an object that you carry to authenticate your identity.

In ancient times, a trusted courier might have carried the king's ring to a foreign kingdom to prove that he could speak for the king. Modern tokens are electronic devices, usually containing encoded information about the user who's authorized to carry it. Typically, a token is used in conjunction with another type of authentication, in a two-factor authentication system. For example, with certain types of PC security packages, you must insert an electronic, key-shaped token during login and authentication. After the system recognizes the token, it prompts you to type identifying information (e.g., ID and password) and compares your entry with the information encoded on the token. If the two match, you'll be allowed access. If they don't, you'll usually be given a few more chances. After multiple failures, you'll be locked out, and an alarm will sound. These tokens do not require user interaction; for this reason they are sometimes referred to as passive tokens.

Modern token systems are packaged as PCMCIA (PCCARD) or USB form factor devices that fit into your computer. Soft tokens, secure passwords that are unique to your computer, can also be installed.

In most cases, tokens are used as part of a VPN secure transmission path, which allows a portable computer to log onto a corporate network from out of the office or on the road, and implements encryption on the data that is transferred.

Challenge-Response Systems

Some public key authentication products are more sophisticated versions of electronic tokens. These can be called active tokens. Challenge-response systems typically use a hand-held device containing an encryption program and a key. When you try to log in, the system challenges you with a random number. You type this number into the hand-held device, which encrypts it and displays the result. Now, you type that number into the system. The system compares the typed response with the result of its own encryption of the random number. If the two numbers match, you're allowed access.

Versions of this kind of device include smart cards that display a code periodically. To log into a system or enter a secure facility, you identify yourself (by typing your PIN or password), and you also type the code that's currently displayed on your smart card. The card is synchronized with network timing signals, so that a stolen sequence is valid for only a short time. Such systems offer a number of other special features. For example, the card can be designed to stop and erase its memory at the end of its programmed lifetime. If you attempt to open the card to replace batteries or change it in any way, the card is permanently disabled.

Cards: Smart and Dumb

For many years, ID badges, often with photos, have served as credentials. You must present your license to the bank teller or supermarket clerk before you're allowed to cash a check. You must flash your employee badge before the building guard allows you to enter the building. Authentication works by having someone visually match your face to your picture.

Automatic teller machine cards and certain types of credit cards use a more reliable type of matching that magnetically encodes identifying information on the card. For example, an ATM works by comparing the information on the card to the information you enter at the ATMusually some combination of account number, PIN, and/or passwordand allowing you to withdraw money only if the match is successful. Increasingly, more advanced types of cards are being used to control access to buildings, computer rooms, and computers themselves.

The typical access card is the size of a credit card. It usually contains an encoded identifying number, password, or other type of prerecorded information, often in encrypted form. Depending upon the sophistication of the system, the card may contain a large amount of additional information.

The newest types of access cards are called smart cards. Smart cards come in different sizes and shapes. Some look like credit cards, some look like memory sticks, and some are shaped like a watch fob. One popular version provides secure transmission information using state-of-the-art encryption algorithms, and fits on a standard key ring. A disadvantage to tokens is that they are small and easily misplaced, and they can be costly, from $25 to over $100 dollars. These cards contain microchips that consist of a processor, memory used to store programs and data, and some kind of user interface. Sensitive information, which typically includes the user's PIN and/or password, is kept in a secret zone of the read-only memory. This zone is encoded during manufacturing, using cryptographic techniques, and is inaccessible even to the card's owner.

The newest forms of smart cards are ultra-small modules that communicate via radio with sensors on the device or doorway to be protected. These usually contain not only the information required to access the protected area or device, but also personal information related to what you can or cannot do once you have entered of logged on. Advanced versions of these identifiers may contain health related information, which can be used if you are found unconscious or disabled, or man-down sensors, which can alert personnel if you fall or come under duress.

Types of Access Cards

Access cards are distinguished by the technologies used to encode information on them. The government publications, Guideline on User Authentication Techniques for Computer Network Access Control (FIPS PUB 83), and Guideline For The Use Of Advanced Authentication Technology Alternatives (FIPS 190) described the following types of cards in 1980 and 1994, respectively. Although some of these methods have been supplanted by newer technologies, they're all included here for historical interest:

Photo ID card

Contains a facial photograph that is checked visually by a person.

Optical-coded card

Contains a geometric array of tiny, photographically etched or laser-burned dots representing binary zeros and ones that typically encode the user's identification number. The card is laminated with a protective layer that can't be removed without destroying the data and invalidating the card.

Electric circuit card

Contains a printed circuit pattern. When inserted in a reader, the card selectively closes certain electrical circuits.

Magnetic card

Contains magnetic particles that encode the card's permanent identification number. Data can be encoded on the card, but the identifying structure of the tape itself can't be altered or copied.

Magnetic stripe card

Contains only a stripe of magnetic material, typically on one edge of the card. This technique is used by most commercial credit cards.

Metallic strip card

Contains rows of copper strips. The presence or absence of strips determines the code pattern.

Capacitance card

Contains an array of small conducting plates. The capacitance of the plates determines which are isolated and which are connected.

Passive electronic card

Contains electrically tuned circuits. The card is read using a radio frequency field, which decodes the tuned circuits to encode the unique card number.

Active electronic card

Contains electrical circuits. The card is read by an interrogation unit that examines the encoded information transmitted by the badge.

Memory and microprocessor tokens

These are fitted with both EPROM and EEPROM programmable nonvolatile memory technologies.

Radio-based card

Communicates between user and desktop computer via tiny radio frequency circuits embedded in the access card.

Unlike most of the other types of access cards that are typically used (like badges) simply to gain entry to a facility, smart cards are often used for authentication. When a user attempts to log in or enter a secure facility, the computer system may transmit information to the smart card, which performs a series of complex calculations on it and transmits the result back to the computer. If the transmitted result matches the expected result (which is possible only if you have an authentic smart card), you're allowed to enter.

Many smart cards are built to work with card readers. You insert the card in the reader. The system displays a message, and you enter your personal identifier in response. If the identifier matches the one expected, you're allowed access.

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