The Facility Technologist: Smart Cards – More Than Just Access Control

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By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA
Published in the February 2004 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

The technologies used for access control are constantly changing, from conventional locks and keys to computerized systems. The most significant development in this field is the latest generation of smart card, which is more flexible and secure than previous card systems. In addition, it can be easily used for other facility related purposes as well. This type of flexibility makes the next generation of smart card an appealing option for those facility professionals in the market to upgrade their access control systems.

Why are smart cards an improvement over magnetic stripe cards? Security and adaptability are the primary reasons.

When it comes to the straightforward security aspects, many experts feel smart cards are better than magnetic stripe cards. Just like making a copy of a key, magnetic stripe cards can be duplicated. Although duplication of a magnetic stripe card is a bit more complicated, the equipment required is easily purchased for a reasonable cost. It’s not surprising that the frequency of magnetic stripe card copying is increasing. On the other hand, the security of smart cards is so robust that the Department of Defense uses the cards for employee access control and verification when logging on to the Pentagon’s computer network.

Smart cards are also much more flexible than magnetic stripe cards. The ability to update the information on a smart card makes them capable of more than access control. Many cards can even store monetary value that can be used for purchases.

Due to their flexible nature, smart cards are now being used by some colleges as a combination ID, access control, and debit card for bookstore purchases. They can also be used to check out library books. Businesses in the public and private sector are using smart cards in other innovative ways. Some corporations are using them as health insurance ID cards that store information such as annual deductible amounts. Public transportation agencies have started to phase out the older magnetic stripe cards and phase in smart cards for ticket purchase purposes.

A smart card is similar in size and shape to a credit card, but that is where the similarity ends. Whereas a credit card has a strip of magnetic tape that holds a small amount of information, a smart card has an embedded microchip that can store far more information and can add, delete, and update stored information. This means it can be used in many more ways than magnetic stripe cards.

There are several different type of cards that fall into the category of smart cards, but they are not all the same. The first distinction is between contact and contactless cards. A contact smart card must be physically inserted into a smart card reader, where a contact in the reader touches the face of the chip in the card. This allows the two to communicate. The other type of smart card is contactless. When a contactless smart card is held next to a reader, the reader’s radio signal activates the card’s chip, which responds with a return signal. There is no power source on the card; the energy of the reader’s radio signal supplies all the power that is needed. The next important distinction is the type of chip in the card. The simplest type is called an Integrated Circuit (IC) Memory Card. This card is embedded with a memory chip that can store dozens of times more information than magnetic stripe cards. IC Memory Cards can only store and update information, but cannot perform any real computing.

An even smarter card is the Integrated Circuit (IC) Microprocessor Cards. Microprocessor Cards, sometimes called “chip cards”, offer greater memory storage and a much higher level of security than magnetic stripe or IC Memory Cards. The computer chip inside actually has almost the same processing power as the first desktop PCs! This power gives the cards the ability to process simple programs, which means they can offer encryption that is extremely difficult to bypass-even for a very sophisticated hacker with plenty of computing power at his or her disposal.

Optical Memory Cards apply the very same technology as CD-ROMs, and they have a piece of the same material that CDs are made of glued to the face of the card. These cards have much greater capacity than other smart cards, but they can only be written once and cannot be updated. In addition, their readers are much more expensive than other smart card readers.

One of the most significant advances in smart card technology is the recent establishment of the Java Card standard. This standard, developed by Sun Microsystems, provides an open-source, non-proprietary language that enables IC Microchip smart cards to run applications on the card’s chip.

The introduction of an open-source standard removes one of the biggest impediments to smart card product development. Many vendors have tried to monopolize the market by developing proprietary smart card programs and forcing customers to purchase only from them. This approach makes money for the vendor, but it slows development by stifling competition. The development of the Java Card standard will undoubtedly result in a whole range of new uses for smart cards by inspiring developers to create new applications. With computing power getting smaller and faster, the smart card of the future might be more powerful than today’s PDAs. With that kind of power, the future of the Smart Card will undoubtedly include applications that facility managers cannot even dream of today.


Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Managementtextbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, andreliability of client business through technology.

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