According to Wiki “Access control is a system which enables an authority to control access to areas and resources in a given physical facility or computer-based information system. An access control system, within the field of physical security, is generally seen as the second layer in the security of a physical structure.”
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Access control system operation
When a credential is presented to a reader, the reader sends the credential’s information, usually a number, to a control panel, a highly reliable processor. The control panel compares the credential’s number to an access control list, grants or denies the presented request, and sends a transaction log to a database. When access is denied based on the access control list, the door remains locked. If there is a match between the credential and the access control list, the control panel operates a relay that in turn unlocks the door. The control panel also ignores a door open signal to prevent an alarm. Often the reader provides feedback, such as a flashing red LED for an access denied and a flashing green LED for an access granted.
The above description illustrates a single factor transaction. Credentials can be passed around, thus subverting the access control list. For example, Alice has access rights to the server room but Bob does not. Alice either gives Bob her credential or Bob takes it; he now has access to the server room. To prevent this, two-factor authentication can be used. In a two factor transaction, the presented credential and a second factor are needed for access to be granted; another factor can be a PIN, a second credential, operator intervention, or a biometric input.
There are three types (factors) of authenticating information:
Passwords are a common means of verifying a user’s identity before access is given to information systems. In addition, a fourth factor of authentication is now recognized: someone you know, where another person who knows you can provide a human element of authentication in situations where systems have been set up to allow for such scenarios. For example, a user may have their password, but have forgotten their smart card. In such a scenario, if the user is known to designated cohorts, the cohorts may provide their smart card and password in combination with the extant factor of the user in question and thus provide two factors for the user with missing credential, and three factors overall to allow access.
A credential is a physical/tangible object, a piece of knowledge, or a facet of a person’s physical being, that enables an individual access to a given physical facility or computer-based information system. Typically, credentials can be something you know (such as number or PIN), something you have (such as an access badge), something you are (such as a biometric feature) or some combination of these items. The typical credential is an access card, key fob, or other key. There are many card technologies including magnetic stripe, bar code, Wiegand, 125 kHz proximity, 26 bit card-swipe, contact smart cards, and contactless smart cards. Also available are key-fobs which are more compact than ID cards and attach to a key ring. Typical biometric technologies include fingerprint, facial recognition, iris recognition, retinal scan, voice, and hand geometry.
An access control point, which can be a door, turnstile, parking gate, elevator, or other physical barrier where granting access can be electronically controlled. Typically the access point is a door. An electronic access control door can contain several elements. At its most basic there is a stand-alone electric lock. The lock is unlocked by an operator with a switch. To automate this, operator intervention is replaced by a reader. The reader could be a keypad where a code is entered, it could be a card reader, or it could be a biometric reader. Readers do not usually make an access decision but send a card number to an access control panel that verifies the number against an access list. To monitor the door position a magnetic door switch is used. In concept the door switch is not unlike those on refrigerators or car doors. Generally only entry is controlled and exit is uncontrolled. In cases where exit is also controlled a second reader is used on the opposite side of the door. In cases where exit is not controlled, free exit, a device called a request-to-exit (RTE) is used. Request-to-exit devices can be a push-button or a motion detector. When the button is pushed or the motion detector detects motion at the door, the door alarm is temporarily ignored while the door is opened. Exiting a door without having to electrically unlock the door is called mechanical free egress. This is an important safety feature. In cases where the lock must be electrically unlocked on exit, the request-to-exit device also unlocks the door.
For more information you should read the full Wiki entry on Access Control Systems.