Get Smart about Smart Cards

Jan. 1, 2009

Discover what smart cards have to offer and how they differ from proximity cards

If a change in your access-control system is in order, it might be time to explore next-generation smart-card technology. While smart cards and proximity cards may look identical, it's what's inside that sets them apart.

"The smart card is really a computer," explains Scott Howell, director, worldwide marketing, Hirsch Electronics, Santa Ana, CA. "It has an operating system, a database, one or more applications, and a processor that, together, can provide to the card reader a lot more information, and can actually do processing functions within the card, such as read, write, or make calculations."

Unlike prox cards that operate at 125 kilohertz (kHz), smart cards operate at a much higher frequency: 13.56 megahertz (MHz). "That frequency is about 100 times faster," explains John Menzel, president and CEO, XceedID Corp., Golden, CO.

Smart cards offer superior security, too. "First-generation proximity cards are fairly easy to crack," says Henry Dreifus, founder and CEO, Dreifus Associates Ltd. Inc., Maitland, FL. Smart cards are more secure than prox cards because you can embed a digital certificate and/or biometric template on a smart card, its card serial number (CSN) can be encrypted, and mutual authentification between card and reader is possible. "They are also inherently harder to counterfeit," adds Howell.

The capabilities of smart cards are numerous; they can be used for more than merely physical access control. "Smart cards, because they can handle so much more data, are typically partitioned or divided into multiple memory areas within the same card," says Menzel. "You might have one sector of the card's memory that's allocated to access control, another that's allocated to cashless vending, and another that's allocated to logical access to a computer." These all-in-one cards have found favor with higher-education institutions that provide students and faculty with one card to check out books from the library, purchase food at the dorm cafeteria, access campus buildings, log on to campus computers, and buy supplies from the campus bookstore. "The most popular applications are vending and logical access, but the information that can be stored on the card is really wide open," says Matt Barnette, vice president of sales and marketing, AMAG Technology Inc., Torrance, CA.

It's wise to consider smart cards even if you don't plan to use them for multiple applications - because you may want to in the future. According to Barnette, "The costs have come down to the point now where smart cards are roughly the same [price] as traditional proximity technology."

The most popular smart cards have 4, 8, or 16 kilobytes of memory, although cards are available with as much as 128 megabytes of memory. Consider the applications you'll be using the card for now - as well as in the future - when purchasing. While access control and cashless vending are not data-intensive applications, storing biometric data (e.g. a fingerprint or iris template) is. The more memory a card has, the greater the cost. "Most cards can handle myriad applications that are non-biometric without having to go to large memory sizes," says Menzel.

Retrofitting from prox cards and readers to smart-card technology could mean reissuing cards to your entire population and installing new readers. If you're concerned about making the transition, a hybrid solution might be the answer - consider cards with prox and smart-card technology (pictured here). "That provides a transition so the card can be used on the legacy type of equipment, as well as the new-generation equipment as it's being deployed," says Barnette. A similar option is available for card readers as well. Howell explains: "Multi-technology readers, sometimes called migration readers, read the older, traditional 125 kHz prox cards and the newer smart cards."

Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is editor at Buildings magazine.

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