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D3.6: Study on ID Documents

Basic Technologies for ID Documents  Title:
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Chip Card Technologies (Smart Cards)


The name smart card is ambiguous and thus stimulates the imagination. The term integrated circuit card (ICC) is often used to encompass all those devices where an integrated circuit is contained within an identification card piece of plastic. These plastic cards have a well defined size 85.6mm x 53.98mm x 0.76mm. The first plastic cards had very limited technical functionality as they used an embossed card number for counterdrawing or magnetic stripe technology for machine reading. The first magnetic stripe cards were used in the early 1970s on transit tickets and in the 1970s for bank cards. Credit cards were first issued in 1951, but it was not until the establishment of standards in 1970 that the magnetic stripe technology continuously grew and became a factor in the use of plastic cards. Today with an infrastructure that encompasses every store in the high street giving them the ability to read the information on the magnetic stripe, the technology is everywhere. Although some limitations exist in the amount of information that can be stored on the stripe and the limitations in the security of the data, the magnetic stripe card will still be used in the foreseeable future. With the advent of new technologies many people have predicted the demise of the magnetic stripe. However with the investment in the current infrastructure the magnetic stripe card will still co-exist with newer technologies for at least another decade.


Smart Card Technology

Smart cards are not new either. The idea to put an integrated circuit into a plastic card is nearly as old the first commercial integrated circuits itself. The first patent for a smart card technology was filed in 1971 and the first cards were used more than two decades before. 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, thus reducing the cost without sacrificing any of the security. Smart cards can be as small as SIM cards (25.1mm x 15.1mm x 0.76mm) or as large as the well known plastic cards described above. Smart cards contain relatively large amount of information in an embedded micro-chip. 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 cards. 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 Euro value which the user can spend in a variety of transactions. Examples might be pay phone, retail, or vending machines. 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 to which it is attached to make the application work. A smart purse or multi-use card is possible with this technology. As there is a microprocessor on the card, various methods can now 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 flavours - the contact version and the contactless version. Both types of cards have the microprocessor embedded in the card however the contactless version does not have the gold plated contacts visible on the card. The contactless card uses radio communication to pass data between the card and the reader without any physical contact being made. The advantage of this contactless system is that there are no contacts to wear out, no chance of an electric shock coming through the contacts and destroying the integrated circuit, and the knowledge that the components are completely embedded in the plastic with no external connections. The disadvantage to this is that the card and reader are slightly more sophisticated and hence are more expensive. The biggest disadvantage today with smart cards is the cost to create a smart card system. Individual card prices have fallen over the past few years but they are still high when compared with a magnetic stripe card. The biggest advantage is of course the amount of data that can be stored and last but not least, the security that can be built into the card. Standards for the smart card technologies exist for both contact and contactless versions of the technology. 


International Standards

The prerequisite for the worldwide penetration of smart cards into everyday life, such as their current use in Europe in the form of telephone cards, health insurance cards and bank cards, has been the creation of national and international standards. A smart card is normally one component of a complex system. This means that the interfaces between the card and the rest of the system must precisely be specified and matched to each other. This could be done on a case-by-case basis, without regard to other systems. However this would mean that a different type of smart card would be needed for each system. Users would thus have to carry a separate card for each application as it is still common today. In order to avoid such situations in the future, an attempt has been made to generate application-independent standards that allow multi-functional cards to be developed. A good example is telephone cards. In technical terms, they are very simple objects. Their true function, which is to allow public telephones to be used without coins, can be realised only after umpteen thousand card phones have been installed throughout a region and connected to a network. The large investment required for this can only be justified if the long-term viability of the system is ensured by appropriate standards and specifications. Standards are an indispensable prerequisite for the emerging multi-functional smart cards for several applications, such as telephony, electronic purses, electronic tickets etc. 

The ISO/IEC (International Organization for Standardization / International Electrotechnical Commission) standards are especially significant for smart cards, since they define the basic properties of smart cards. The purpose of these worldwide associations of around 100 national standards agencies is to promote the development of standards throughout the world, with the objective to simplifying the international exchange of goods and services, and developing cooperation in the fields of science, technology and economy. Both, globally operating large enterprises down to small start-up companies profit from standardisations. For the global players international standards may act as a protection for large investments, for small companies standards may be the entry ticket in large markets which otherwise might have been closed to them. 


Figure : Overview of important international standards for smart cards.

The list shown in is by far not complete as there exist numerous additional national and international standards and specification organisations who made contributions related to identification cards (EN, FIPS, DIN, Java Card Forum, etc).



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