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Time Is Money, Part II
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By Judith Katz

In the first part of this feature on the automation of time time tracking, we discussed the rationale for the technology and introduced the three types of swipe card systems: magnetic stripe, barcode and PIN. Now, let's compare the approaches more closely.

All are plastic, credit card-style cards that differ in the way in which they store data. “Mag-stripe” uses a strip of coated magnetic recording tape encoded with its owner’s credentials, written during the personalization “enrollment” process. The information, contained in two to three tracks, is composed of thousands of tiny, iron-based magnetic particles combined in a plastic film that when swiped through the narrow slot of a terminal, are read by the scanner. When interfacing with time and attendance software, it records the date and time the individual identified performed the “transaction.”

Barcode credentials contain a series of lines that vary in width and distance from one another. Their readers use a laser beam sensitive to the reflected light of the lines. The reflections are translated into digital data that then integrates with the computer for storage and/or decision. In the case of time-tracking, the decision is either acceptance or rejection – for various reasons, such as an employee attempting to “clock-in” for unauthorized overtime hours.

Systems that utilize cards incorporating PINs can function either with or without keying ID numbers into a terminal. In the case of the former, the process is comparable to using an ATM bank card, whereby the card is inserted into the reading device followed by entering the PIN on a keypad for comparison and confirmation of a match.

Those that don’t necessitate keypad entry are known as “smart cards” and are essentially mini-computers. Their data is written into a microchip with an integrated circuit capable of processing and storing thousands of bytes of electronic data. While PIN entry can be required it typically is not as fraudulent copying of data from a microchip is both difficult and rare. Consequently, microchip smart cards are reputed for levels of security that exceed all others.

In contrast, visible barcodes are easily duplicated with little more than a copy machine. Duplication of magnetic stripes is somewhat more difficult, but still doable. And all plastic cards are susceptible to damage. Cracks or breaks can interfere with “scannability” and like any accessory, can be lost and perhaps even more problematic, shared, enabling employees to “log-in” for absent or tardy co-workers. This act, known as buddy-punching, eradicates accuracy. Yet, barcode and magnetic stripe cards afford businesses the convenience of producing them themselves, enabling immediate replacement of lost, stolen or damaged cards. Doing so requires the necessary supplies and equipment and the associated costs, which still prices them below smart cards systems, such as proximity systems.

While replication of proximity cards, tokens or key fobs isn’t an issue, potential for loss, theft or sharing is comparable to other systems involving accessories. Of course, the other advantages and advanced capabilities of contactless RFID technology makes it pricier than their less expensive card-system competitors. For example, credentials can be read from a distance, making this approach especially popular with large enterprises seeking an expedient way to authorize many employees. They are also effective where hands-free “log-in” is important. And when security is top priority, the inability to reproduce smart cards makes them superior.

Biometrics offers another solution to the challenges of authentication. These systems rely on a unique characteristic of an individual to serve as his/her credentials or password. Despite the biometric trait used all recognition systems perform similarly. They begin by capturing an image of a physical trait and making a template for comparison to future samples. The ultimate goal revolves around resolving a pattern recognition problem in order to separate two classes – forgeries and originals. Convenient; impossible to share, forget or loose; with few exceptions, impossible to replicate, biometric systems are rated the most secure data capture technology available with time-tracking software.

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Judith Katz is the President and CEO of Count Me In LLC.
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