Real Words or Buzzwords?: Unicity

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This is the 28th article in the award-winning “Real Words or Buzzwords?” series about how real words become empty words and stifle technology progress, also published on SecurityInfoWatch.com.

By Ray Bernard, PSP, CHS-III


Traditional reader-based access control systems have an issue of not being able to tell exactly who went through the door. They can only tell who presented the card or biometric print. And someone could even have used another person’s card enabling a different individual to walk through the door or entryway.

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  • I recently encountered the term “unicity” in an explanation about an innovative optical turnstile product. I wondered if it was a made-up work or a real word that I just hadn’t seen before. Was it being used the right way? Is it a concept that has relevance to security?

    I had to look it up. For “unicity” in quotes, Google returns 2.45 million results in a half-second. There are thousands of things (products, companies, services, projects and so on) named “Unicity” or with “Unicity” in their name, and millions of people who have already heard this term. However, none of the companies or products explained the term “Unicity” on their websites.

    I found a term in cryptography (the practice and study of techniques for secure communication) – unicity distance – that relates to decrypting English (or other language) text that is encrypted by the character substitution method. Unicity distance is defined as the minimum amount of ciphertext (encrypted text) required to allow a computationally unlimited adversary – who does not have the unique encryption key  – to discover the encryption key.

    I couldn’t see how unicity distance related to optical turnstiles, and nothing else I had seen so far seemed related to security. So, I turned to the dictionary for help. It turns out that unicity has a variety of definitions, all of which relate to its Latin root word “ūnus”, meaning one, thus, a unicycle is a cycle with a single wheel.

    The English Oxford Living Dictionaries provided the unicity definitions most applicable to physical security:

    • The fact or quality or state of being unique.
    • The fact of being united as a whole.

    Thus, unicity can refer to the uniqueness of individuals and also the uniqueness of groups united as a whole in some way.

    Unicity and High-Throughput Optical Turnstiles

    Watch the two-minute video below, which shows how 3D modeling is used to detect unauthorized individuals entering a turnstile, and distinguish between authorized and unauthorized individuals without having to know their identities. An integrated access control system tells dViator whether the person presenting a card at the reader is authorized for entry. dViator then accurately tracks the valid user moving about in and around the turnstile gate. Users who have not validated are considered to be unauthorized and are tracked as such. This is unicity without identity – not having to know who the individuals are to be able to follow and react to each one’s unique presence within the turnstile, and direct them into or away from the secure area as appropriate.

    Traditional reader-based access control systems have the issue that they can’t tell exactly who went through the door – they can only tell who presented the card or biometric print. And someone could even have used another person’s card. A different individual could walk through the door or entryway. It is each person’s unicity – the fact of their being a unique individual – that dViator uses to accurately control entry. dViator effectively avoids that unauthorized users can “steal” the entry credential of an authorized user simply by walking through the unlocked door. Unicity of the authorized user is maintained.

    Enhanced Situational Awareness

    Because dViator can use bands of differing colors to identify and display the group membership of authorized individuals – for example, Staff, Teacher, Parent, Student and other groups in a school or university would all have a different color associated with them – all personnel using the turnstile system can feel safer, knowing what group the authorized individuals around them belong to. Advanced integration allows digital signage at the turnstile to display group-specific messages, without individual identities having to be shared between systems.

    Unicity: A Step in the Right Privacy Direction

    In 2009, the Electronic Frontier Foundation published a paper by Andrew J. Blumberg and Peter Eckersley titled, “On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever.” The paper is available to read online and also to download as a PDF file. It defines locational privacy (also known as “location privacy”) as “the ability of an individual to move in public space with the expectation that under normal circumstances their location will not be systematically and secretly recorded for later use.”

    Back in 2005, I wrote in an article for Security Technology and Design magazine that privacy was going to be the security challenge of the next decade. Since then we haven’t really addressed privacy in the physical security industry, but now technologies have advanced to the point where taking privacy into account – including location privacy – is completely technically feasible.

    Unicity – as opposed to identity – is a concept that makes that possible.

    Visual Unicity: Being Part of the Right Group

    The unicity concept can be found in the new visual security wearables (security card badgeholders and digital lapel pins) by Ticto that allow you to “see” if people are authorized to be in the area they are in. Please watch the two one-minutes videos below showing how Ticto works visually in real time (videos also appear on the Ticto home page).

    Ticto Badgeholder for Secure Areas

    Ticto Badgeholder for Visitor Management

    Note: in the discussion that follows, “badgeholder” means a wearable battery-powered intelligent badge holder for a standard proximity access card badge, and “cardholder” refers to the person the card is assigned to, who is also the wearer of the Ticto badgeholder containing the access card.

    How the Ticto System Woorks

    Three actions are required to get started using the Ticto system:

    1. Ticto Badgeholders. Distribute Ticto badgeholders to authorized cardholders so they can put their existing proximity cards into the badgeholders. Insert visitor badges into Ticto cardholders for visitors.
    2. Ticto Phone App. Give cardholders the Ticto app for their smartphones.
    3. Ticto Gateways. Deploy the Ticto gateways in strategic locations in the facility, and you are ready to go.

    As shown in the videos, Ticto works in real time, acting as a seamless layer on top of a physical access control system (PACS). The color bar of Ticto badgeholders whose wearers are authorized to be where they are, all simultaneously change in the same random color sequence, visually verifying that they are authorized to be present. Badgeholders of unauthorized people flash red. Traditionally people wear uniforms (“uni-form”) to demonstrate that they belong together. Ticto wearables are a smart and discrete technological implementation of the ancient uniform concept! While you can buy or make a look-alike uniform, you can’t fake or make a Ticto badgeholder due to its electronic functionality.

    In the backend, the Ticto software will integrate with the PACs to retrieve users, rights and badging events. At the physical level, the Ticto badgeholder will read the access card info using NFC. Now the badgeholder has become a personalized device that is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) enabled. This ensures the connection to the Ticto gateways, but in addition also allows enabling the smartphone for additional functionality such as screening people around you or tethering visitors to your phone.

    The BLE protocol has the advantage of having a significantly longer range than NFC or traditional Bluetooth, making it the communication technology of choice for new forms of access and presence control solutions.

    A visitor’s Ticto badgeholder can be tethered by Bluetooth to the cell phone of the escorting sponsor.  Tethered users who stray beyond the 30 feet or so range of Bluetooth trigger an alert as to their possible access violation. The same goes for employee team members whose team leader is responsible for them when they are given temporary access to special areas for work purposes. The group’s badgeholders can be tethered to the team leader’s cell phone. This is an active means of enforcing an escort policy.

    The unicity concept is: the approved personnel present are “being united as a whole” visually because their badgeholders all display the exact same colors in the same sequence at the same time, announcing the fact that they are all authorized to be in the particular location they are in. Authorized cardholders who did not present their card to the card reader, but tailgated into the secure area, have badgeholder color bars that don’t illuminate.

    Improved Solution to Tailgating

    For facilities who suffer from tailgating, Ticto technology takes the burden off cardholders, who heretofore have been told to confront unrecognized cardholders and to read their badges and determine if they are authorized to be present. With Ticto, if people in question aren’t visibly displaying a Ticto badgeholder, or if the badgeholder is not flashing at all or is flashing red, they don’t belong there. It’s not necessary to confront them up close. It’s easy to make a comment like, “It seems your badge isn’t working.” If the person doesn’t immediately leave, authorized users can step back, pull out their smartphone, and press the Intruder button in the Ticto app.  Security will instantly be alerted with the location of the offending individual. If an unauthorized badgeholder leaves the secure area, that individual’s location will continuously be updated to security, to assure that security can appropriately deal with the situation.

    Ticto gateways perform indoor locating for wearers, and interface to the facility’s access control system to determine whether the wearers of the badgeholders are in a location they are authorized for.

    Ticto digital lapel pins work similarly and can be used with gateways independently of an access control system at event venues. Lapel pins display a unique color-changing sequence for each gateway-defined location and can be worn by authorized personnel from multiple organizations who are servicing the event. Ticto works in good and poor lighting conditions and can’t be falsified or copied.

    Visual Situational Awareness

    Ticto’s visual display of unicity (of the group of authorized people) provides a continual level of comfort about security that surpasses what has previously been achievable even in highly classified government or private facilities. For example, the moment a cardholder’s access is cancelled, the Ticto badgeholder begins flashing red. All people present – including the now-unauthorized individual – are instantly made aware of the situation and can consider the implications given the current location and the people and protected assets present. The now-unauthorized individual is not able to tailgate into other areas without being recognized as an intruder. Personnel in any location can instantly summon security via the Ticto app.

    Ticto enables the use of criteria outside of the PACS system, such as safety training, certifications, insurance and other qualifications that expire at a certain date and time, merging the domains of physical security and compliance, with visual evidence of full compliance being ever-present.

    Previous Real Words or Buzzwords? articles on situational awareness discuss the fact that mobile-device-enabled personnel both need and can be provided with situational awareness information that fits their roles and responsibilities. This is a fact that system designers should keep in mind. Ticto is one example of doing just that.

    Potentials for Unicity

    There are many potentials for the concept of unicity to be applied to improve security system capabilities. For one example, network camera analytics could take the unicity characteristics of a suspect and transmit them to cameras in pathways towards which the suspect is heading. Enabled by this information, cameras in those pathways can more quickly recognize the suspect by unicity characteristics, rather than having to duplicate all the previous analytical processing.

    The cameras can add new unicity characteristics to those already provided, with cameras along the suspect’s path continuing to track the suspect from camera to camera, without any dependency upon visual images being recognized at the monitoring command center, such as might be performed via facial recognition processing. It can require a surprisingly low number of data points to achieve unicity recognition. There is likely even a parallel to “unicity distance” for identifying people or vehicles moving between cameras – the minimum number of physical characteristic points that provide a near-guarantee of a match.

    I hope that security industry companies – inspired by work that is already being done using unicity – will apply the concept in new ways to continue security industry innovation, keeping privacy capabilities in mind along the way.


    Ray Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities (www.go-rbcs.com). He is the author of the Elsevier book Security Technology Convergence Insights available on Amazon. Ray is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council (SEC) and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security. Ray was recently named as one of the IFSEC Top 50 Fire and Security Global Influencers for 2018.