Key Fobs: Security Fix or Money Pit?

Marianne Schaefer

Metal door keys may be going the way of the fax machine and the phone booth. "Everything is becoming cell phone-based and we're doing more and more electronically," says Matthew Arnold, president of Academy Mail Box, an apartment house security firm that has been in business since 1948. "I think eventually keys are going to be eliminated. The only question is: how long is it going to take?"

And what, exactly, will take the place of the humble key? According to Arnold and others in the security and property management fields, a host of new technologies are pushing keys toward obsolescence, including swipe cards, biometric fingerprint access, key pads, and key fobs.

"Our installations of key fobs have doubled in the past five years," says Arnold, using the vernacular term for Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID. The system allows for a fob to be passed in front of a reader placed beside the door. The reader scans the data stored in the fob and relays it to a central server, which will either grant or deny access to the building. The system also stores a record of every entry into the building.

The main benefits of key fobs are security and convenience. A fob can be deactivated when a resident moves out, when a worker gets fired, or when a subletter leaves. Activation can also be tailored to individuals and time frames, such as allowing bike room access only to bike owners, or allowing dog walkers to enter the building only during specified hours. "Imagine you fire your nanny," says Robert Ferrara, president of the Ferrara Management Group. "You really don't want her to be able to come back into the building. It gives residents a sense of security."

Security doesn't come cheap, Ferrara adds: "Such a change includes more than replacing the keys. It's an entire system and the investment for any property is similar to a security surveillance system. It can cost tens of thousands of dollars."

Arnold says that the most basic systems start around $6,000, which includes a shoebox-sized computer, a processor, and two readers. Key fobs are an additional $10 apiece, though the cost can be half as much with high-volume purchases. Fobs, unlike keys, cannot be copied. But there are downsides. Fobs won't function during a blackout, which leads many adopters to leave dummy cylinders in entry doors so that a key cylinder can be installed during an emergency. A battery backup system that will power key fobs during a power outage can cost a prohibitive $1,000 an hour to operate, Arnold says. And buildings with large Orthodox Jewish populations sometimes install mechanical key-pad systems in tandem with key fobs, in order to accommodate the proscription against using keys or completing electrical circuits on the Sabbath and other holy days.

And then there is that ever-present ogre, Big Brother. Residents might feel they get security at the price of diminished privacy when their movements are recorded. Ferrara says that the tracking is not as extreme as people fear: "The fob can only track when you come in, it will not know when you leave or where you are at any given time."

Still, Ferrara insists that the privacy of the residents has to be respected. "The board should have very clear rules and a policy when they would actually look at that data," he says. "It should only be done for very serious incidents, such as a burglary. Nobody should be allowed to look at that data for trivial reasons."