Key control in commercial environments

by Tiffany Paczek
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When it comes to implementing a mechanical key system in your facility, make sure you have all the necessary legal protections in place, writes STUART SMITH.

Security systems have evolved radically over the last couple of decades and electronic systems have become far more prevalent. But most commercial facilities still rely on mechanical keying as their primary access control. Besides, even electronic doors and access control doors remain fundamentally operated by a mechanical lock and have an override on them.

Therefore, it’s imperative for facility managers and building owners to ensure they do their due diligence before specifying a mechanical key system and determining which is the best one for their building.

There are several aspects that should be taken into account. The first thing any building manager should know is how many keying systems they have and it’s imperative to ascertain whether or not the keying systems are legally protected by any form of intellectual property. The second thing is how many keys have been issued to those systems. With records from your service provider, perform a key audit to determine how many lost keys are in existence and what your exposure to risk is.

The reason this is so important is that a system that is firmly covered by a patent will protect against the unauthorised duplication of keys. Control over who has which key and who is authorised to duplicate those keys is essential for security. Of course, it’s impossible to completely prevent illegal key copying – unscrupulous people will always attempt to make their own key blanks in order to circumvent security systems – but with watertight agreements in place, only authorised service centres will be able to supply or copy keys and key blanks, and certain profiles or certain key platforms will only be available through those authorised service centres.

What this means is that the short-term contract worker on the 15th floor can’t take the key temporarily issued to them to the nearest Mister Minit and make 50 copies for all their friends.

So, when specifying a mechanical key system, it’s vital that you always ensure that you have legal protection, but also an adequate length of protection, over the keying platform that you choose. There are different platforms available and each one has its own technology – its own unique features that are, typically, patent or design registered.

These have fixed lengths, so ensure that if you are investing in a new keying system you have enough life and value for your money. The last thing a property/facility manager or building owner needs to discover is that they have purchased a new keying system that actually has no protection, or that there is protection, but it only covers the first couple of years – after which the system is uncovered and completely vulnerable to unauthorised copying by all and sundry.


Underscoring the importance of this, most of the current innovations in this space are around patent control and design, with the latest systems seeing the addition of security features to the mechanisms to prevent the bumping of cylinders or picking of the cylinders. The intent is to make it as technically difficult as possible for anyone to override that cylinder.

One of the most notable trends is towards having movable elements within keys. It’s believed that the first recognisable key lock system dates back to eighth century Assyria, and the keys used then are still recognisable as a basic form of the ones used today – the standard flat key with cuts in it. But now what we’re seeing are keys with additional moving elements incorporated, such as a spring in the tip of the key or versions with movable ball bearings. This again increases the technical difficulty of anyone duplicating that key, let alone those who are doing so with nefarious intent.

If someone is intending to use brute force and simply break or drill right through a lock, these initiatives won’t stop them, but for those attempting to pick a lock, it becomes extremely difficult to override the cylinders with any sort of mechanical method. And with high-security cylinders, much of the protection is centred on preventing surreptitious entry.

Importantly, it also protects against three- dimensional (3D) printing – the evolution of which is giving rise to security issues in a whole range of areas, the potential production of 3D printed guns just the most publicised.

While it has already been witnessed in Europe, the illegal 3D printing of keys has yet to be a serious issue in Australia, though it is an increasing threat and it’s highly probable that there are people here already experimenting in this space.

How to specify

Currently, the most important thing is to work with a provider that will work with you to give you a unique system, a customised system unlike any other. And it’s best to liaise with that provider as early as possible in the specifying process. If a provider has been engaged by the original architects, the client – whether the facility manager or building owner – should then meet with that provider to really drill down into the requirements of the system. After all architects or builders may have cost parameters in place or other considerations, but it’s the client, the end user, who is going to be working with the system on a daily basis, so the earlier they are involved in the design and specification discussions the better.

Together with the provider, they need to plan a master key system – so that there are adequate codes created when the system is being designed. It’s always helpful for a facility or key manager to understand what expansion they may need to have or cater for in the future. This way, for instance, if they end up with a rogue employee who leaves the building taking a bunch of keys with them, the key manager knows they are able to simply rekey just that one floor, instead of, say, 50 floors in a building.

And one headache less in any facility manager’s life is always a very welcome thing. ●

Stuart Smith is a product manager at ASSA ABLOY.

This article also appears in the October/November issue of Facility Management magazine.

Image: 123RF’s boonsom © 123RF 

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