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Replace keys with card

"You'd think that with high technology they would be able to do better than this." -- an MIT graduate student complaining about the large number of keys she must carry around.


This September, over a thousand freshmen will enter the Institute. A typical freshman will receive two keys to his dormitory, a Vali-dine card, and an MIT ID card. He will have to memorize the combination to every terminal room he uses on campus. These combinations will change at least eight times before he leaves the Institute. He will receive, on average, two keys or combinations for every student activity he joins, and two more for every UROP he has.

The large number of keys, cards and combinations that everybody at the Institute carries around is one of the more distinguishing characteristics of MIT.

During the summer, I cut back from my usual 15 keys to only ten. Today, I am carrying four keys to the Tech office, a key to my truck, a key to the lab where I work, a key to the SIPB office, two keys to my dorm and one that looks pretty. That is five ounces of keys.

A friend sitting next to me has 12 keys in his pocket. Another has 11. A few years back, rumor has it, an MIT student named Sklar carried around 41 keys.

I have found that most people at MIT carry between seven and ten keys. If eight is about average, then there is over a ton of keys being carried around daily by MIT students.

The average MIT student carries two cards with him, as well. Some labs in which students work issue additional cards that activate computer-controlled door locks. If the MIT library's computerized circulation system ever gets working, faculty and students will use optical bar-codes which will be stuck to the back of their IDs to check out books.

There are a growing number of computer terminal rooms around campus which have electronic combination locks. Their combinations are changed regularly, because they quickly become common knowledge, rendering the locks useless.

Wouldn't it make sense if instead of the keys, the cards and the memorized combinations, MIT affiliates had simply one card?

The "MIT Card" could be as simple as an MIT ID with a magnetic strip or bar-code strip on the back. This strip would contain two numbers, the MIT ID number and a key number. Although student ID numbers could be public knowledge, the key number would be known to no one, including the student.

Rather than giving out literally thousands of keys to large Institute offices, and requiring people to memorize many constantly changing combinations, students would simply be authorized to use particular doors. The central computer would be told that a particular student ID card was allowed to open a particular door. It could also be set up so that, for example, any MIT female had access to the Cheney Room.

The use of such cards would eliminate the problem of lost keys or disclosed combinations allowing unauthorized access to secure areas, since lost cards would be deactivated and new cards issued. The cards also would eliminate the problem of seniors giving their keys to underclassmen when they leave the Institute.

The overhead involved in issuing the cards and maintaining the equipment is a major cost for groups at the Institute who wish to install computer-controlled locks. But if the cards were issued and authorized centrally, and if physical plant was trained in the installation and servicing of the locks, costs would be minimized.

Students would still have keys for their individual dorm rooms, and professors would have keys to their offices, since it is not likely that it would be cost effective for the Institute to install computer-controlled locks on doors which only one or two people should have access to. But personally, such a system would reduce the number of keys that I carry from fifteen to two. At a cost to MIT of approximately three dollars per key, the Institute would save $39 on me alone.

After the initial cost of the computer, new locks can be installed for less than $150 each. If twenty new people have access to a given door each year, that lock would pay for itself within three years. At the current time, I know of two or three such installations of key-card systems. They have proven to be more cost effective and more secure than conventional locks and keys.

Unfortunately, it is doubtful that MIT will install such a campus-wide key-card system. It is too bold a move for an Institute too ingrained in tradition. Such a system could be developed here, but never installed. It would make too much sense.