October 03, 2006

Security and usability of a real-life elevator

Security problems often appear from unforeseen interactions between different system parts. Likewise it happens when new features are added or existing ones are modified. Here is another example of that.

The office where I work occupies a five-storey building. All entrances to any level were initially equipped with card locks, and so to enter or to go from one level to another you had to have your card with you. This brought a certain amount of security, in terms of authentication and audit.

The problem was, there was initially no elevator, only stairs to access the levels. As time went on, convenience considerations prevailed and so an elevator has been installed. As such thing hasn't been predicted in the first place, the elevator shaft now couldn't be locked with card locks, simply because there is no doors on the elevator compartments, and such doors can't be installed (easily, or at all).

What happened is that security has been breached - once you have access to one level, you could take an elevator to any other without a card. This effectively defeated the entire system.

Anyhow, this is not the end of the story yet although the rest of it adds nothing from the security perspective. It's just that the elevator seems to attract user interaction problems as well.

And so one of the levels is also undergoing heavy repairs. You can enter it with or without a card now, but it's a mess therefore noone is supposed to. But the feature of entering any level without a card (in a form of elevator) is already there. Now, what's been done to prevent unaware people from using it in the wrong way, i.e. going to the second floor ?

The elevator button panel has been patched (literally, with a piece of paper and tape) so that you couldn't go to level two at all.

Now every day I come to work, this patched button reminds me of how difficult and unpredictable security and usability really is where it meets real life uses.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There are elevator controls that require keycard to "unlock" the button for a particular floor.