Do You Know Your Smart Card Technology?

For almost 15 years, contactless RFID cards and tags have been changing the access control landscape. While the market has grown exponentially over that period, it is only recently that the cards and readers have evolved from simply transmitting numbers...


For almost 15 years, contactless RFID cards and tags have been changing the access control landscape. While the market has grown exponentially over that period, it is only recently that the cards and readers have evolved from simply transmitting numbers to complex multi-application card and reader environments that can perform multiple functions including security and encryption with flexible card structures. Advances in technology have made contactless cards and readers a must-have for all a company’s security and access control needs.

Contactless card technologies

According to research analyst Blake Kozak, IMS Research, although smart cards are being used more in European countries than in the U.S., smart cards in the U.S. are beginning to see large growth, with proximity cards still taking up the greatest portion of the market. “Multi-technology readers are popular at the moment because they allow an organization to futureproof themselves,” explained Kozak. “Simply stated, this allows users to continue using their current technology until the funding and/or time is right to upgrade their system. The multi-technology reader will then allow them to upgrade more seamlessly.”

There are a variety of contactless card technologies available in today’s market. Proximity cards are the most prevalent, primarily because that’s what end-users are accustomed to using. These cards and tags communicate at 125 kHz and work when a card is brought within the area of the RFID field created by a reader. It’s very simple and easy to use, but is usually only good for one application. From a security standpoint, this card can only be secured using a specific format in the card or with a matching format between the card and reader. There are, however, newer and better options available.

  • Contactless smart cards: These cards/tags communicate at 13.56 MHz, a much higher frequency than the proximity cards. The primary benefit of these cards is their larger memory capacity (32kbits/4kbytes) and ability to store vast amounts of information, such as history, employee information and biometrics (e.g., fingerprints and iris templates). Contactless smart cards are secured via multiple authentication methods, in that the communication transmission is secure between the card and reader – and different every time – so a hacker cannot “sniff” the information. Additionally, because the cards have wired logic memory (organized in fixed sectors or pages), additional security can be added to protect information written to the cards through encryption or special passwords, more commonly known as “security keys.”
  • Microprocessor cards: A variation on the contactless smart card, this type of card, as its name implies, has small microprocessors and memory on the chip. The bigger the card’s memory (available up to 8 kilobytes), the more application possibilities exist. For example, a card with 8 kilobytes of memory can potentially manage 28 applications. Depending on the applications, this card can be used to enter the parking lot/building, access IT/secure networks, biometrics, photos, time and attendance, secure printing and even cashless payments to manage the cafeteria or vending machine purchases, thus eliminating the need for multiple cards per person. And, you can create and arrange application sectors inside the memory storage to your liking, much like a hard disc on a computer.

Overcoming obstacles

Despite the advances in card technology, there are many challenges that must be overcome before full adoption of these newer, bigger, better cards can be achieved. The primary challenge is overcoming the idea that proximity cards are the be-all, end-all access control solution. The bigger challenge is one you face as a dealer/integrator. Currently, you rely on a variety of people to provide information on customer cards – the customer itself, vendors, etc. Unfortunately, accessing information on existing cards from these sources can take time and energy. Vendors can take awhile to get back to you and, let’s face it, companies are notorious for not knowing their own card technology. This puts you in an awkward position when you’re in the field and are handed a card.

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