About Smart Cards : Introduction : Primer

Smart Card Primer

A smart card is a device that includes an embedded integrated circuit chip (ICC) that can be either a secure microcontroller or equivalent intelligence with internal memory or a memory chip alone. The card connects to a reader with direct physical contact or with a remote contactless radio frequency interface. With an embedded microcontroller, smart cards have the unique ability to store large amounts of data, carry out their own on-card functions (e.g., encryption and mutual authentication) and interact intelligently with a smart card reader. Smart card technology conforms to international standards (ISO/IEC 7816 and ISO/IEC 14443) and is available in a variety of form factors, including plastic cards, fobs, subscriber identity modules (SIMs) used in GSM mobile phones, and USB-based tokens.

Smart Card Technology

There are two general categories of smart cards: contact and contactless.

Contact Smart Card Diagram

A contact smart card must be inserted into a smart card reader with a direct connection to a conductive contact plate on the surface of the card (typically gold plated). Transmission of commands, data, and card status takes place over these physical contact points.

Contactless Smart Card Diagram

A contactless card requires only close proximity to a reader. Both the reader and the card have antennae, and the two communicate using radio frequencies (RF) over this contactless link. Most contactless cards also derive power for the internal chip from this electromagnetic signal. The range is typically one-half to three inches for non-battery-powered cards, ideal for applications such as building entry and payment that require a very fast card interface.

Two additional categories of cards are dual-interface cards and hybrid cards. A hybrid card has two chips, one with a contact interface and one with a contactless interface. The two chips are not interconnected. A dual-interface card has a single chip with both contact and contactless interfaces. With dual-interface cards, it is possible to access the same chip using either a contact or contactless interface with a very high level of security.

The chips used in all of these cards fall into two categories as well: microcontroller chips and memory chips. A memory chip is like a small floppy disk with optional security. Memory chips are less expensive than microcontrollers but with a corresponding decrease in data management security. Cards that use memory chips depend on the security of the card reader for processing and are ideal for situations that require low or medium security.

A microcontroller chip can add, delete, and otherwise manipulate information in its memory. A microcontroller is like a miniature computer, with an input/output port, operating system, and hard disk. Smart cards with an embedded microcontroller have the unique ability to store large amounts of data, carry out their own on-card functions (e.g., encryption and digital signatures) and interact intelligently with a smart card reader.

The selection of a particular card technology is driven by a variety of issues, including:

  • Application dynamics
  • Prevailing market infrastructure
  • Economics of the business model
  • Strategy for shared application cards

Smart cards are used in many applications worldwide, including:

  • Secure identity applications – employee ID badges, citizen ID documents, electronic passports, driver’s licenses, online authentication devices
  • Healthcare applications – citizen health ID cards, physician ID cards, portable medical records cards
  • Payment applications – contact and contactless credit/debit cards, transit payment cards
  • Telecommunications applications – GSM Subscriber Identity Modules, pay telephone payment cards

Illustrations courtesy of Gemalto.