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Card Keys Sometimes a Problem

Sharon N. Young Pong -- The Tech
This card reader at East Campus, like others all over campus, has been labeled: "Big brother inside."

By Shang-Lin Chuang
Staff Reporter

While the Office of Housing and Food Services has added several features to the card key system in the last term, students are still finding problems with its operation.

Card keys can currently be used for identification, to access certain dormitories, and for purchasing items at dining halls, the 24-hour Coffeehouse, and the Office of Lab Supplies.

In the near future, the MIT Card Office plans to change the student identification numbers to improve security and expand purchasing options to include vending machines, copy machines at Graphic Arts, and washers and dryers in the dormitories, according to Assistant Director of Housing and Food Services Kenneth R. Wisentaner. The office has also improved the process to replace lost cards.

Each card reader costs about $1,500, Wisentaner said.

The card key system was chosen because there is a higher level of security than with keys, said Chief of Campus Police Anne P. Glavin.

In fact, the crime rate decreased 30 percent since dormitory card key readers were installed, Wisentaner said.

But students' habits sometimes work against these security benefits. Sometimes they hold the door open for other people, even those they do not know, said Robert J. Pensalfini G.

Students have to take responsibility for their own security, Wisentaner said. "We have come a long way with the card system; students have to help also," Wisentaner said.

Some students are wary of the information contained in a card key. "A stolen card is significantly more dangerous than a stolen key," said Glenn P. Tesler G. "By looking up the name in the student directory, a criminal could easily find out precisely where the card gains access."

"If someone finds or steals it then they are you for all intents and purposes until that card is cancelled," Pensalfini said.

MIT Card Office Manager Lucy A. Barrera explained that starting next September, each student will be assigned a personal identification number different from his Social Security number.

Advantages of card keys

The main advantage of the card key system is that any individual card can be readily activated or deactivated, said MIT Card Office System Administrator Richard Lew '95. If a student loses his card, the old one is deactivated and a new one is issued with the original information - for a $15 fee, he said. The entire process should take only two or three minutes, Lew said.

After normal working hours, students can report lost or stolen cards to the 24-hour operations center, Lew said. Operations then informs the nightwatch manager, who has the authority to deactivate cards and issue temporary cards, he said.

"Students should always report lost or stolen cards, even if they think they can find it later," Lew said. "We can always reactivate a card later, and then the student wouldn't have to pay for a new card."

Also, the card readers will remain operational in the event of a power failure, Lew said.

"The network is distributed so that all readers work individually. There is a central computer but it only talks to each individual dorm reader periodically," Lew said. "If there is ever a power outage in the central office, the readers would continue to function normally."

Lew added that there is an emergency response group which can override failed card readers and respond to repair calls within two hours.

Committee to examine privacy

A committee on privacy is currently investigating the possible use of card keys to record students' movements and purchases made through the cards.

"The key card readers could potentially use the key cards for a tremendous amount of information. No data is stored on the card itself, but the card reader is capable of recording as much or as less as is programmed," said Committee Head Amy S. Bruckman G.

One case where these records would be useful is "pass back," where people can allow multiple cars into a parking lot with a single card, Glavin said. The Campus Police is looking at the pass back problem and will issue a report on their findings. Currently, there are no records of parking lot entrances and exits, Glavin said.

"The only thing that is happening now is that the system on the other end recognizes the cards as they goes through," Wisentaner said. "That's it. There is no record."

"The issue needs to be discussed not just by the university administration but by the community and university administration together," Bruckman said.