Keys have undergone quite the transformation over the centuries: wooden beams in ancient Egypt, ornate rings in ancient Rome, oversized iron keys in medieval Europe, five-pin Yale keys invented in the late 1800s (and still in use today) and even no keys at all, with the advent of keyless entry.
Regardless of the form keys take, they’re as valuable as the areas or items they protect. They’re also only as secure as the key owner’s ability to manage who can use them. That’s why key control exists. Take a few minutes to explore how key control has evolved over the centuries.
In ancient Rome, only the wealthy carried keys, because most people didn’t own anything valuable enough to warrant locking it up. Those who did own valuables stored them in secure boxes and wore bronze keys fashioned as rings on their fingers or on straps or chains around their necks. Wearing keys was a status symbol, much like wearing multiple-carat diamond jewelry is today.
Carrying keys continued to be a privilege belonging to the affluent in medieval Europe, and keys became more elaborate as locksmithing evolved into an art form. Usually made of iron or bronze, keys were as long as 12 inches and featured intricate ornamentation.
Pegboards, Cabinets and Lockboxes
With the Industrial Age, the lock-and-key system went through a series of transformations that made locks more secure and keys smaller and thinner. Unlike the days where only the elite carried keys, average people became key holders.
With more keys in circulation, businesses began formalizing key control. Hotels, for example, used cabinets or wooden panels with hooks for keys, often labeling each key with the number that corresponded to the room. When a key was removed, a manual logbook was updated with details such as which key was taken, who it was issued to, when it was removed, when it was returned, etc. Wooden panels later evolved to wall-mounted metal cabinets.
Then came the 1960s: a pivotal time in key control history, with two notable key control products being patented. The portable key safe, or lockbox as it’s now called, allowed keys to be stored in a small locked box that was attached to doors of homes for sale or windows of vehicles on dealership lots. Perforated hardboard, or the pegboard, provided an easily installable way to store multiple sets of keys. Both of these key storage methods are still common today.
Electronic Key Control
As key cabinets and pegboards became commonplace, an entrepreneur noticed that people weren’t always able to maintain control over their keys. Keys went missing, people failed to update (or manipulated) key control records, and businesses spent thousands on rekeying costs.
In 1987, an entrepreneur created an electronic key control system that automatically captured the details of each transaction every time a key was removed. That system was KeyTrak. Today, there are multiple types of electronic key control systems on the market, including vending-machine-style systems, PC-based systems tied to electronic metal drawers, and wall-mounted panels. Some systems, however, still require manual steps, such as scanning a key tag, that are vulnerable to human error.
In the 1970s, an inventor created a lock using a programmable key card — no metal key required. Today, keyless entry systems, also called smart locks, allow people to manage access to their buildings or assets with fobs, smartphones, fingerprints and codes entered on keypads.
Businesses are adopting smart locks for key benefits such as the ability to grant access remotely, disable an individual’s access without having to collect a key or rekey locks, and create an audit trail of door access. Security professionals are divided in their opinions on the safety of keyless door locks, so some businesses still choose to use traditional locks or a combination of traditional and keyless locks.
Throughout the history of key control, one thing has never changed (and never will): the need for human accountability. No matter what form of access control you use, make sure you have a reliable system to track who can enter restricted areas and handle valuable assets.