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Smart cards are credit card-sized plastic cards that contain relatively large amounts of information in an imbedded micro-chip. Smart cards differ from magnetic stripe cards in two ways: the amount of information that can be stored is much greater, and some smart cards can be reprogrammed to add, delete or rearrange data.
There are several terms used to identify cards with integrated circuits embedded in them. The terms “chip card,” “integrated circuit card”, and “smart card” really all refer to the same thing.
There are two types of smart card. The first is really a “dumb” card in that it only contains memory. These cards are used to store information. Examples of this might include stored value cards where the memory stores a dollar value which the user can spend in a variety of transactions. Examples might be pay phone, retail, or vending machines. Another example of a “dumb” card is the memory that is plugged into a Personal Computer (PC Card – used to be called PCMCIA).
The second type of card is a true “smart” card where a microprocessor is embedded in the card along with memory. Now the card actually has the ability to make decisions about the data stored on the card. The card is not dependent on the unit in which it is plugged to make the application work. A smart purse or multi-use card is possible with this technology.
Smart cards are the technology of choice when fairly large databases must travel with an individual or an object. For instance, a version of smart card technology is used to record service histories for automobiles. The data travels on a small tag on the owner’s key ring. It can be reprogrammed, updated and accessed whenever the vehicle is serviced with any of that company’s dealers.
As there is a microprocessor on the card, various methods can be used to prevent access to the information on the card to provide a secure environment. This security has been touted as the main reason that smart cards will replace other card technologies.
The microprocessor type smart card comes in two flavors – the contact version and the contactless version. Both types of card have the microprocessor embedded in the card, the contact version having gold contacts on the surface of the card to provide the electrical connection.
Smart cards are not new, the first patent was filed in France in 1974 and the first cards were used in France in 1982. The technology was rapidly accepted in Europe because the high cost of telecommunications made on-line verification of transactions very expensive. The smart card provided the mechanism to move that verification off line, reducing the cost without sacrificing any of the security. In the United States, telecommunication costs have always been low compared to other countries. This meant that the impetus to implement smart cards has taken longer to reach the momentum needed.
The possible benefits of the acceptance of smart card technology depend on the application in use. However, the ability to move large amounts of data with little or no increase in the security of the data will lead to many new applications being created that we haven’t even begun to think about.
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