Thursday, April 20, 2006

Magstripe Cards

Currently, the most widely available and heavily implemented technology for tracking employee movement is the same familiar magnetic strip (or "magstripe") found on the back of the country's more than 1.4 billion credit cards. Magnetic strip technology, which has been around since the early 1970s, is now commonly integrated into employee IDs.

The typical magstripe is a thin strip of plastic film containing thousands of small (1/20-millionths of an inch) magnetic particles. Using a magnetic field, the particles in various sections of a magnetic strip can be oriented to the North or South Pole. Once information has been recorded on the strip, it can be deciphered by a magstripe reader.

Typically, an employer will issue IDs that encode certain information on the ID magstripe, such as an employee's name, ID number, security level, and so forth. Depending on the level of security in place at the company, the employee will have to swipe her ID through a magstripe reader in order to gain access to the parking lot, the front door, and/or various internal door-ways. The magstripe readers are typically wired into a network, so that when an employee swipes her card, the information in the strip can be verified by a central database. In addition, most such systems are specifically designed to record the date, time, and identity of each person who goes through a business's various checkpoints.

One drawback to a card reader system is that information about employee movement is collected only when the employee swipes his card. That limits the amount of information and level of detail that an employer can collect. An employer could set up a system that required employees to swipe their cards to go in or out of every door, but doing so has obvious practical difficulties, including cost and inconvenience. In addition, the hassle of constantly swiping an ID card would undoubtedly spur an employee rebellion. Magstripe cards have a number of other drawbacks. The physical process of swiping a magnetic strip tends to wear it out, which means that the strip eventually needs to be replaced. Exposure to a magnetic field can scramble or erase the data. And the structure for storage of data is well known, and the raw materials and software necessary to produce magstripe cards are readily available (thanks largely to the fact that the same technology is used on credit cards, which are a lucrative target), so they are all too easy to duplicate

The main concern for employers who use card readers (magstripe or otherwise) to monitor access and movement is the phenomenon of "tailgating," when one employee swipes his card and other employees pass through without swiping theirs. Some businesses have gone so far as to make "tailgating" a forbidden practice, and there's a growing industry of companies that market devices specifically designed to prevent tailgating. For instance, Designed Security, Inc., in Bastrop, Texas, offers a product called the ES520 Tailgate Detection System, which sounds an audible alarm or sends an alarm signal to a guard station if more than one person tries to pass the system on a single card swipe.

A challenge facing any employer who installs a security system is that employees often won't use it or will try to get around it. But security continues to be a critical issue—employers want the ability to know where their employers are and where they've been. As a result, employers are showing strong interest in tracking systems that require a minimum of employee participation. Until RFID technology becomes widespread, the leading candidate for more effective employee tracking is the incorporation of infrared technology into employee IDs.

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