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Key Fobs 101: What Small Businesses Need to Know

Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski
Staff Writer

Key fobs are an important part of many access control systems. Here's how they work and how your small business can use them.

  • Key fobs work through RFID technology, which is efficient, secure and programmable.
  • These keyless entry systems have become widely used by both businesses and consumers since their creation in 1983.
  • Key fobs can be copied and hacked, so it's important to train employees on how to use, store and carry them securely.
  • This article is for business owners and building managers who are interested in upgrading their entry systems and making their facilities more secure. 

If you have to hand physical copies of building keys to employees, you know how difficult and time-consuming it is to track who has a key to your facility. Dealing with physical keys is also a security risk, because an employee may misplace theirs, make a copy, or use it after hours without your knowledge.

Key fobs allow you to track, manage, and limit access to your building without traditional keys. If you are considering a keyless entry system to your facility, here is everything you need to know.

What is a key fob?

A key fob is a physical device, small enough to attach to a keychain, that opens or unlocks doors electronically. A mainstay of electronic door entry systems, the key fob has gone through many iterations since its inception in 1983. Early systems, used mainly for car doors, relied on line of sight and used infrared but were highly susceptible to copying. Systems developed over time to use challenge-response authentication over radio frequency and now operate primarily over a passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, which allows the exchange of data through electromagnetic waves.

Key fobs and cards are used with a variety of access control systems and offer a simple way for small businesses to manage entry into their facilities. They are increasingly popular for their ease of use and customizability, allowing business owners to control who can access which doors, see records of entries and exits, and adjust access as their workforce changes. [Read related article: A Comprehensive Guide to Security Equipment for Small Business]

What is a proximity key?

A proximity key is a fob that allows for keyless entry. The fob communicates with a reader via RFID that a door should be unlocked. A proximity key is different from a key fob because a fob must be waved in front of the reader to allow access, whereas a proximity key can remain in a bag or pocket to unlock the door, as long as it's within a certain distance of the lock. Proximity keys are primarily used for cars but are gradually being adopted for building access control systems.

Key takeaway: Key fobs are physical tokens that allow the carrier to unlock doors through the use of RFID technology. Along with key cards and proximity keys, they are an increasingly common part of access control systems.

 

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How do key fobs work?

Modern key fobs work through RFID, an intelligent barcode system that uses electromagnetic fields to identify and track data on "tags" that contain the stored information. The information then passes through radio waves.

The barcode system works similarly to a barcode you would see on the back of a physical product or the magnetic strip on your credit card – it requires a reader to gain the information.

To open a door using a key fob, you simply need to hold or wave your fob in front of the reader. Each key fob contains a microchip with a unique frequency that communicates with the reader and indicates that the door should be opened. Fobs can be programmed to allow levels of access for different uses. For example, you could program your building manager's fob to access all doors in a facility, while a receptionist's fob may only allow access to a few areas.

Key takeaway: Key fobs use RFID, or radio waves, to pass information from the fob to an electronic reader and unlock a door without physical contact between the devices.

Why are key fobs used?

Key fobs are being widely adopted for their ease of use and management. They eliminate the process of wiggling a metal key around in a lock – all you have to do is hold or wave the fob over the reader. Proximity keys are another great option for easy entry, because you don't even have to take them out of your pocket or purse for them to detect the lock.

Key fobs provide the same function as traditional keys but offer additional convenience and security. If a fob is lost or you wish to deny entry to someone (say, a former employee or tenant), you can easily cancel access on that particular fob. [Looking for even greater security for your building? Check out our reviews of the best video surveillance systems for 2021.]

Additionally, key fobs allow you to control who can enter which doors and when. For example, you can allow access to a warehouse only to the necessary employees during their designated work times. Fobs also enable you to keep records of entries and exits so that you can track attendance, visitors or staff mobility.

Key takeaway: Key fobs allow you to limit access to certain areas of your facilities. You can authorize certain employees or other people to enter only the areas necessary to their roles during their designated shifts.

Where are key fobs used?

Key fobs and proximity keys are often used for cars with keyless entry, apartment or condominium buildings, parking garages, college campuses, gym facilities, office spaces, and buildings with restricted areas, such as rooms or warehouses that store valuable inventory.

What are the costs of a key fob system?

Depending on the system and the features you require, an access control system that uses key fobs and readers will cost around $1,500 to $2,500 per door with access for up to 150 people.

Can you copy a key fob?

Yes, you can make a copy of a key fob. However, it requires some technical knowledge and an RFID reader, which you can buy online and allows you to read and write 125kHz key fobs, which are the most common type for apartment and office buildings. If you don't want to do it yourself, there are several key-fob-copying services available that will clone your fob for you.

Key fob copying is not a cause for concern; it's equivalent to taking your metal key to the hardware store to make a copy. The copy is identical to your original fob, meaning it's subject to the same allowances and restrictions.

Key takeaway: You can copy key fobs, but it's a somewhat complicated process involving an RFID reader. You can give the task to a key-copying company.  

Can smart door locks be hacked?

Yes, it's possible to hack into the smart doors that key fobs open. Security teams have demonstrated how hackers can steal badge data from your fob and copy it to their own cards, badges or fobs. Most RFID-enabled tags are not encrypted and do not carry any sophisticated protection, leaving them vulnerable to hackers.

To avoid your fobs being hacked, consider an RFID-blocking sleeve to cover your fob. You can also change your system to one that does not broadcast information to a hacker's reader, like a rolling code or challenge-response approach.

If you use key cards, Ryan Smith, owner of Keycard Ninja, recommends including a printed photo ID on them, because a photo cannot be duplicated onto a new card.

Key takeaway: Smart door locks can be hacked if you don't take protective measures, such as RFID-blocking sleeves and rolling codes.

Do magnets affect key fobs?

No, the common magnet is not strong enough to affect your key fob.

Can a locksmith program a key fob?

This depends on the system that you use and the locksmith. Some larger locksmiths offer the service, but you should contact your access control system provider first to see what support options it provides. [In need of a video surveillance system? Check out our guide on how to choose the best one for your business]

Do you have to reprogram a key fob after replacing the battery?

Generally, no. If you have a professional replace your battery, they should be able to do it without needing to reprogram the fobs.

How is a key fob used in multifactor authentication?

Just as a key fob is an excellent way to upgrade a building's security, two-factor authentication is one of the best ways to upgrade your business's digital security. In recent years, security keys have been created that operate similarly to key fobs. To access sensitive information, protected data, or online accounts, employees must insert a physical USB-A or USB-C security key and enter a password.

Sean Peek contributed to the writing and research in this article.

Image Credit: catinsyrup / Getty Images
Kiely Kuligowski
Kiely Kuligowski
Business News Daily Staff
See Kiely Kuligowski's Profile
Kiely Kuligowski is a business.com and Business News Daily writer and has written more than 200 B2B-related articles on topics designed to help small businesses market and grow their companies. Kiely spent hundreds of hours researching, analyzing and writing about the best marketing services for small businesses, including email marketing and text message marketing software. Additionally, Kiely writes on topics that help small business owners and entrepreneurs boost their social media engagement on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.