Product review: Smart cards seem a sure bet

Smart cards: these credit card-size devices carry an embedded microprocessor and memory that can store and often process information. Applications range from telephony to transportation to electronic wallets and purses.

With the same size and feel as credit cards, smart cards are more powerful replacements for magnetic-stripe cards and hold more information, as well as providing more security. However, the widespread usage of magnetic-stripe cards has slowed the pace of adoption of smart cards. But with the growing efforts and enthusiasm among developers, manufacturers, vendors, banks, and corporate users, the acceptance of smart cards should receive a significant boost.

Pros: Tamper-resistant data; high levels of data control and accountability; secure way to handle private information; easy to carry.

Cons: Costly to deploy; not yet popular among participants in pilot programs; can sometimes be hard to find when you need them.

When was the last time you had to search for pocket change to pay for the bus or train? If you were in certain parts of the world, you could have used a smart card for that task. Smart cards, which contain a computer chip and memory, are growing in popularity for a number of applications, including transportation, telecommunications, debit purchasing, and health care. Some market factors have delayed their adoption in the US, but use of the cards is now gaining momentum.

Smart cards are widely used throughout the world, and their acceptance has been significant in Europe and Asia.

Due to major involvement by the French government in smart card technology, the first real applications of smart cards appeared in France in 1985. With an initial order of 16 million cards, the French banking industry erected a milestone on the road to mass-market acceptance. One year later, France Telecom followed with 7 million telephone cards.

How they work

A smart card is a credit card-size plastic card that, unlike a credit card, has an embedded semiconductor, which lets it accept, store, and send information. It can hold as much as 80 times more data than magnetic-stripe cards, and the embedded semiconductor chip can be either a memory chip with nonprogrammable logic or a microprocessor with internal memory.

Smart cards typically fall into two general categories: contact and contactless. The chip communicates either directly via a physical contact or remotely via a contactless electromagnetic interface. Contact smart cards need to be inserted into smart card readers, which touch a conductive module on the surface of the card. Data, algorithm, and other information are transmitted via the physical contacts.

A contactless card, on the other hand, makes use of an electromagnetic signal and an antenna on each smart card to create the conversation between the card and the card reader.

The microwave frequencies employed also provide the card with its power source. These non battery-powered cards need to come within 5 to 7cm of the card reader to be powered. "Fast card" interfaces, such as those used by transportation fare cards, have greatly benefited from the contactless interface, which allows a customer to quickly wave the card near the device, instead of inserting and removing a card, which can slow down lines.

A third category is commonly referred to as hybrid or combi, although strictly speaking, the two are different. Hybrid cards are dual-chip cards; each chip has its respective contact and contactless interface, and they are not connected to one another inside the card. Combi cards, in contrast, carry only a single chip that has both contact and contactless interfaces, either of which can communicate between chip and card reader.

A smart card basically consists of three parts: a plastic card with or without a magnetic stripe; an electronic module supporting the electrical contacts; and a silicon integrated circuit. All of the components -- central processing unit, memory, and I/O -- are in the same integrated circuit chip with electrical connections tying them together. Thus it is difficult for foreign signals to tamper with the interconnections of the components inside the chip; this enhances the security of the smart card.

The enterprise role

The need for security and protection of privacy is growing as electronic forms of identification multiply in our computing-pervasive world. The increasing popularity of the Internet and the expansion of corporate networks have accelerated the demands to prevent unauthorised data access.

The basic value of smart cards lies in their capability to store personal information with a high degree of security and portability. They provide hacker-resistant storage for protecting private keys, account numbers, passwords, and other forms of personal data. Smart cards also isolate security-critical computations involving authentication, digital signatures, and key exchange from other parts of the system.

Together with digital certificates, smart cards can even enhance authentication between parties, control access to intranets and extranets from outside the firewall, and protect the privacy of data, files, and e-mail. And smart cards provide portability for securely moving private information among systems at work, at home, or on the road.

Smart card users will not need to memorise their passwords or employ a different password for every application; they can carry the cards with them.

Amy Leung, a former technology analyst at the InfoWorld Test Centre, is a product manager at Uniscape, in Redwood Shores, Calif. You can reach her at aleung@uniscape-inc.com.

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