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Developments in Smart Card Systems

Dr. John Gill
February 2004

There are over a thousand million smart cards in use in Europe today, and they have the potential to make life easier for people with disabilities.

A smart card is a card, the size of a conventional credit card, which incorporates an electronic chip. These cards can be:

  • Memory only for applications such as pre-payment telephone cards.
  • Memory plus a microprocessor for applications requiring more security such as credit and debit cards.
  • Proximity where the card has to be held within 20 cm of the reader - mainly used for public transport applications.
  • Vicinity where the card is between 10 cm and 2 metres of the reader.
  • Distant contactless where the card is more than 2 metres from the reading device - for instance in road charging applications.

To verify that the user is the legitimate holder of the card, it may be necessary to input a four digit personal identification number (PIN). By 2005 this will be required when paying by credit or debit card in a shop in the UK.

Other methods for verifying legitimate users are under consideration; these include fingerprints, iris patterns and facial recognition. These biometric systems are good for comparing the holder with the identification on the card (ie verification) but can be problematic when determining absolute identification which requires comparison to a large database.

In the financial area, the motivation for changing from magnetic stripe to smart cards is to reduce fraud since it is much harder to make a copy of a smart card. In the public transport area, the main motivations are speed of processing payments and the ability to allocate revenues and subsidies between various transport operators.

The UK government plans to use smart cards to give citizens access to a whole range of services. Rather than having a large number of different cards, it is possible to hold more than one application on a card.

One possibility is for there to be a UK health smart card to be presented by individuals requiring health services. This could contain just an identification number, and the patient's health record would be stored on a central computer system. Another possibility, albeit expensive, would be for the card to contain a summary of the patient's health record. Another possibility would be for a card solely for handling prescriptions. In this case, the doctor would put the prescription details on the card and the patient would take the card to the chemist. Such a system would reduce the paperwork of the present paper-based system, and could automatically handle those who are exempt from paying prescription charges.

One aspect where smart cards differ from the conventional magnetic stripe cards is that they can store more data. For instance, at the customer's request, a smart card could hold information on the preferred user interface. There is a European standard, EN 1332-4, which specifies how this information should be coded on the card. The coding structure allows for a number of aspects including size and colour of text on a screen, speech output, audio amplification, time-outs, language, and interface complexity level. Current work is on extending this standard to cover accessibility options for computer systems, interactive television and next generation networks.

The UK Banking Code defines an electronic purse as "Any card or function of a card which contains real value in the form of electronic money which someone has paid for in advance, and which can be reloaded with further funds and which can be used for a range of purposes". Despite numerous pilot schemes and some larger scale projects, the consumers have not perceived significant benefit from using electronic purses instead of cash for paying for small purchases. However attitudes could change if governments introduce electronic purses as part of a multi-application card, and provide incentives to encourage usage.

It would be possible to issue blank cards, and for users to download their desired applications onto the card. However there are numerous aspects (such as ownership, branding and liability) which mean that such an approach is unlikely to be widely used in the foreseeable future. However multi-application cards are likely to become more common; initially these will be for applications owned by a single issuer (eg a local council responsible for library services, sports facilities and car parking).

One problem, particularly for blind people, is to differentiate the various cards in their wallet or purse. There is a draft standard (prEN 1332-5) for tactual markings on cards; the problem will be in persuading card issuers that there is a an unmet need which can be alleviated by using this standard and in educating the users about these markings.

Similar technology to that in contactless smart cards is RFID (radio frequency identification) tags which are used in short range applications such as door entry systems, time and attendance, cashless vending and asset tracking. Typical operating ranges are 2-3 metres in Europe and 5-8 metres in USA. Over the next few years, RFID tags will begin to take over from bar codes in identifying products in shops and supermarkets.

A similar technology will be used in NFC (near field communication) devices which are intended for very short range wireless connections - typical range of up to 20 centimetres. It is planned that NFC will be used for the transfer of data between mobile phones, digital cameras, PDAs, PCs, laptops, games consoles and PC peripherals at speeds up to 212 kbit/s.

Over the next few years many more smart cards will be issued for an increasing range of applications. At the same time there will be an increase in the range of systems using similar technology, but not all of these will live up to the extravagant caims being made by their proponents.

Further Information

EN 1332-4 Coding of User Requirements for People with Special Needs.

Extension of Coding of User Requirements.

Raised Tactile Symbols for Differentiation of Application on ID-1 Cards.

User Requirements for Cardholder Identification, Authentication and Digital Signatures.


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