Imaging All The People

When the Egged Bus Company, the national bus company of Israel, wanted to develop a badge that would allow company officials, employees, and their families to ride some bus routes free of charge, they also wanted to ensure that the badges would not be misused or duplicated by others. Modern technology made that possible. A multifaceted badge was developed for Egged that used a preprinted card with a proprietary color ink. A proprietary hologram was also hot-stamped onto the card. Finally, a high-energy magnetic stripe for personal verification was added. After all pertinent identifying information was included in a database and digital photos were added, the cards were printed out on mass production printers.

As society has changed, technology has tried to keep pace with its identification needs. Employers, service providers, public servants, and even the comer merchant all rely on and expect proof of identification. IDs are now a necessity for entering school, arriving at work, cashing a check, and logging on to a computer.

Identification technology can be separated into three basic categories: what you have, such as keys, tokens, or photo ID cards; what you know, such as your name, password, or personal identification number (PIN); and what you are, such as biometrics based on your physiology or behavior.

Many banks currently use two of these identification methods, usually a card combined with a PIN, The First National Bank of South Africa uses a PIN and a voiceprint record to provide secure payments to illiterate mine workers. A desktop computer may be set up to require only a name and a password; however, some computers are now equipped with smart card readers. A smart card has an embedded computer chip that contains one or several identifying features.

Although ID technology is constantly improving, currently the ID card is the preferred medium on which to incorporate these technologies, making it the most popular and widespread method of identification. ID cards can come with or without photos, bar codes, computer chips, and other identifying information and security features. Traditional or composite systems (those produced with film and not computer technology) are still in use and effective for some operations, but the most current developments include digital imaging systems, in which cards are produced using video equipment and computer software.

Traditional systems. With a composite system, a picture is taken using a chemical-based process to develop exposed Polaroid film, which takes about a minute. The photo is then placed on a preprinted ID card ordered from a card manufacturer. The card can contain data such as the name of the person; his or her title and department; an expiration date; and a corporate logo. The card is then laminated to seal in the data.

A bar code or magnetic stripe can also be added to these basic cards by purchasing a separate bar code labeling or magnetic stripe encoding system. In most cases, the bar code or stripe is attached to the ID with a pressure-sensitive labeler after it has been laminated, although some labeling packages come with the bar code already attached to the laminating pouch. This type of card is effective if used with good record keeping and careful monitoring. However, it is possible to forge this card with an offset printing press and a high-quality photo.

Another traditional identification card is the temporary badge, which is most often used by a corporation to identify guests, inspectors, or outside contractors. Typical construction includes a "sticky-back" applied to clothing for one-time use, which may include a time expiration feature that self-voids the badge after one day, one week, or one month. Reusable temporary badges may be prelaminated or made from polyvinylchloride (PVC).

"All-photo" ID cards that contain a photo, signature, and identifying data on a single sheet of film offer more security. All-photo cameras use validation plates with information that remains the same, such as the company logo, as well as unique identifying information such as name, department, and signature. When the photo is taken, the data is superimposed on the card so that the developed film produces a card and photo together. At the same time, the data on these cards is photographically reduced so that the finished ID is in a nonstandard size, making it much harder to reproduce or alter without detection. Once a card is laminated, substituting a photo or data is virtually impossible.

If the cards can be used over time because no changes are made, then the cards are cost-effective. But if new validation plates must be made to accommodate frequent changes, the system can be costly. All-photo cameras are often used for issuing driver's licenses.

Traditional technologies such as those mentioned previously are most cost-effective for facilities with up to 1,000 employees. The cost of a standard all-photo ID card is about $3.25 per card. The system to create the card, which includes the camera, film, a laminator, and a dye cutter, can cost between $1,500 and $5,000. These systems can produce a card in about ten minutes. In most cases, the vendor designs, prints, and delivers the card formats. The vendor can also provide preprinted cards with logos and unchanging card elements.

If a company wants a customized card but cannot afford a proprietary, high-tech computer software package, some vendors, such as Polaroid, sell off-the-shelf software used to create unique card templates. Although this software does not allow the user to make a hard plastic card, it can be used as a design aid when creating a card that can be printed out on light card stock, combined with a photograph, and then laminated.

Features such as bar codes, magnetic stripe encoding, holographs, or ultraviolet (UV) printing are available for composite cards but must be purchased and integrated separately. Attaching holographs to cards is similar to attaching bar codes either after or before the card has been laminated. Vendors also sell cards with preprinted holographs. Some software programs allow the printer to add patterns or data that can only be detected using a UV light scanner.

Traditional ID systems do have drawbacks. For example, the ID cannot be viewed until after the photo has been developed; production time for replacement cards is long (ten minutes); the person has to be present if the photo needs to be retaken, requiring the whole process to begin from scratch; the system needs to be transported for off-site badging; and repairs must be done off-site, meaning operations must either shut down or continue with a "loaner" camera.

The next generation. Today's digital imaging systems combine the power of a personal computer with a video camera and printer to offer flexible options to fit a broad range of ID applications. Digital imaging systems capture and digitize a person's image with a video camera and then, using imaging software, transfer that image to the receiving medium (usually a card) through an inkjet, laser, or dye diffusion thermal transfer printer.

Unlike film-based systems, digital imaging systems can recall and reprint identification cards - a consideration that significantly reduces the cost of replacing lost or expired cards or updating the design or data. They generally work well for companies that have more than 1,000 employees and high security requirements.

Digital imaging systems combine several components: a dedicated PC; a card design software program; a database program, which can be proprietary or off-the-shelf; a camera; and a printer.

Dedicated PC. The computer should have a Pentium processing chip or its equivalent and be equipped with Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, a video capture board, and an SVGA video card. Most Pentium computers come preloaded with video boards and cards, although these items can be purchased separately and added to an existing computer. For optimum performance and output, most suppliers recommend that imaging systems be purchased as a package from one vendor. However, as with all components, the needs of the organization should dictate whether to purchase system parts or a complete package (see sidebar).

Software program. Generally, card design software is proprietary and purchased or licensed from a vendor. The user can create a unique ID layout by choosing from preconfigured templates or by using graphic tools to create an original design. Corporate logos or other graphics can be scanned into the software program and incorporated into the card. Text, backgrounds, colors, and bar codes can be added.

The key feature security managers should look for in card design software is whether the card design can be distinctive enough to make it difficult to duplicate. Other considerations include whether the card will be easily recognized by security personnel and whether it is easy to tamper with.

Database program. The database software purchased with a digital imaging system should be easy to manage and compatible with off-the-shelf database programs. Users should be able to input data with little instruction, and any existing company databases should be easy to download into the imaging database.

Features to check in any database program include the type of information it stores (names, dates, signatures, departments), the triggers that notify an administrator when something is wrong, and how quickly it can match a person to his or her ID card. The database may allow administrators to manage several locations from one central station.

Keven Ellison, marketing manager for Loronix Information Systems Inc., an ID system manufacturer and integrator based in Durango, Colorado, says that the trend in digital imaging systems is flexibility. He says that the challenge for ID vendors is to supply products with open architecture, making them compatible with many operating systems, database programs, and facility security systems.

Cameras. Video imaging systems use either a digital camera, a camcorder, or a basic video camera. A digital camera is the least expensive and most portable of the options, but is less flexible and produces pictures of lesser quality. A camcorder can also be used remotely to take pictures that can be downloaded later into the imaging software. A video camera is directly linked to a computer screen so its pictures can be viewed and captured simultaneously.

While scanners are not essential to system operation, they are a good graphic aid. For example, if a person cannot be present for a video shot, a photograph can be scanned into the computer and a card produced as if he or she were present. In addition, when creating the card, a scanner can be used to scan in a company logo or other designs.

Printers. In the last four years, thermal-printed ID cards that work with either a company's own computer system or with a specially designed system produced by the thermal printer's developer have brought an increased level of security to the industry.

Thermal transfer printing uses heat to transfer ink from a coated substance to a receptor sheet without actually touching the receiving medium. That is, elements on the printer's print head are heated to melt the ink - or dye - onto the receiving medium. The melted dye can be transferred. at 300 dots per inch onto white glossy paper or PVC cards. This kind of printer can also be used to print access control cards so an ID card can be merged with an access control card.

Thermal printing or dye sublimation systems are not without problems. For example, cards must be kept absolutely clean prior to being loaded into the printer because dust and dirt can damage the print head. Poorly cut cards can lead to residue chafing, which can also damage the printer. In addition, the printer has to be cleaned often, and printer repairs can be costly.

While most digital ID systems use a thermal transfer printer, some systems provide "printer independent" printing in which any printer with a Windows driver can be used. The advantage is that in addition to ID cards, the system can handle such documents as student rosters using a laser or inkjet printer. With this type of dossier printing, imaging systems can search through thousands of records and print images in seconds. This information can then be reproduced at remote sites over networked printers.

Finally, some printers are now equipped to print cards using "intelligent printing." Using this technology, printers can affix inks onto the card that may appear or disappear, change color, or become machine-readable based on triggering events such as the passage of time, exposure to heat, or the introduction of ultraviolet or infrared light.

For example, the U.S. Secret Service needed to badge more than 30,000 people for the 1996 Republican and Democratic conventions. They selected a card with a specially embedded optical variable that could only be made by one manufacturer - Advantage Technology Inc. of Crofton, Maryland. The card's security feature was customized to display the Secret Service star on all ID badges. The star changed from transparent to orange and then to green when viewed from different angles. This color change made it impossible to counterfeit the badge by using a color laser copier, desktop publishing software, or a digital camera. The badges were printed using a standard dye sublimation printer.

Most available imaging systems are also capable of printing a bar code on the badge. The most popular bar code programs used are "code three of nine" and "codabar interleaved two of five." These standard bar code packages are incorporated into system software; a separate package does not have to be purchased. Magnetic stripe encoding is achieved by outputting data to any Windows-compatible printer with an internal magnetic stripe encoder. In addition, some printers will print a two-dimensional bar code containing an encoded photograph or will print holographic overlays for additional security.

Costs. An entire electronic imaging unit - including the dedicated PC with video board and card, card design software, database, camera, and printer - costs from $7,000 to $30,000, depending on the quality and features of each component. Printing each PVC card costs about sixty cents, and the production time per card is one to two minutes.

Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, New York, is one example of an organization that has used a digital imaging system. The university needed to provide 4,000 students with IDs before the start of its fall 1996 session. The school's traditional ID system, which had been set up at its three metropolitan campuses, could not keep up with the volume of registrants.

In response, the university purchased a digital ID system from Idesco Corporation of New York. This system badged students at all three campuses from the school's main campus in Brooklyn. Operators downloaded student data from computer terminals at the two other campuses and, using two additional camcorders, captured pictures of students at those remote locations. Students at the main Brooklyn campus were processed in person. A bar code integrated with the school's library system was added to the card as well. By using digital ID technology, the school not only produced IDs for students in eight days but also created a permanent database containing information on each student.

The new database made registration for 1997 easier and more efficient as well. Students who were already registered were mailed updated cards containing new class status and other data.

Because of the new digital ID system, the school realized savings on a number of fronts. Registered students should not have to be processed in person again, which will save approximately 75 percent of time needed to issue ID cards. In addition, lost or stolen cards can be canceled and changed without the expense and time of retaking a photo and re-collecting information. Since the bar code on the ID card was integrated with the school's library system, savings were realized in avoiding production of redundant cards as well as in reducing time tracking down overdue books and fines.

As security managers plan for their organization's future, they can expect to see more applications for ID cards that implement a variety of security features such as bar codes, magnetic stripes, computer chips, intelligent printing, and biometrics. In addition, these cards will be used across a variety of platforms and in more than one setting. The security manager should keep this integrated future in mind when purchasing or upgrading any system that incorporates identification needs, from access control to payroll.


  • Stay away from products about to be discontinued. Usually new products are announced at the beginning of the year and in early fall.
  • Learn what parts of the system are likely to break down over time and how much these parts cost to repair or replace.
  • Carefully consider whether purchasing an ID system integrated with access control is appropriate for a specific application. Determine whether the photos or data can be accessed in an emergency if the access control portion goes down. Compare the features and flexibility of the integrated system to those of the standalone systems relative to the costs.
  • Make sure the system's database is Open Database Compatible (ODBC), which allows for easy integration and sharing of data.
  • Understand that proprietary systems may be great for security but often cannot be upgraded.
  • Consider purchasing a service contract (usually $1,000 to $2,000 annually).
  • Shy away from "inexpensive" supplies. They are not as durable, and they do not always work well with all equipment, meaning they can wind up costing money in repairs.
  • Have reasonable expectations. Avoid disappointment by visiting a site using a system similar to the one being considered.
  • When examining bids, note that lowest price does not necessarily mean best price. Check what kind of service is delivered for the money.
  • Determine what you will need to have an emergency backup for creating at least a temporary badge. These badges should not be confused with expiring visitor passes that have no identifying characteristics. Rather, depending on the organization's budget and security level, they can replicate a permanent badge fairy closely, but may not have all the levels of information on the actual card.

Joel Hershkowitz is director of marketing for Idesco Corp. He is a member of the National Safety Council. Larry Loughry, vice president of Imaging Technology Corporation, and Amy Thompson, a staff editor for Security Management, also contributed to this article. Loughry is a member of ASIS.

COPYRIGHT 1997 American Society for Industrial Security. No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder. Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.