by July 31, 2000 0 comments

From driving licenses to SIM cards, this credit card-sized device seems to have found diverse applications worldwide
Asmart card, simply speaking, is a credit card-sized plastic card with an
embedded computer chip and some memory. You
can put it to a wide variety of uses to help simplify your daily life. Shopping,
identification, telephone services, and
licenses are just a couple of them. ISO 7816 defines the smart card standard–it
details the physical, electrical, mechanical, and application programming
interface for it. 

Smart card technology has its historical origin in the late
’60s and ’70s, when inventors in Germany, Japan, and France filed the
original patents. However, due to several factors, not least of which was
immature semiconductor technology, most work on smart cards was at the R&D
level until the mid ’80s. After that, major rollouts such as the French
National Visa Debit Card served as eye openers to the potential of smart cards.
The industry is now growing at a tremendous rate, shipping more than one billion
cards per year since 1998.

Manufacturing technology

The card’s operating system is stored in a ROM on the card. For its computations, the OS uses a small amount of RAM (about 500 bytes) residing near the ROM. Also aiding the OS is data about passwords, controls, etc, which is stored separately. The EPROM or EEPROM is non-volatile memory of about 2-8 kB used for storing information like application data, etc.Manufacturing
a smart card involves much more than just sticking a chip on plastic. The
plastic used is usually PVC (poly vinyl chloride), but other substitutes like
ABS (acryl nitrile butadiene styrene), PC (polycarbonate), and PET are also
used. The chip, also known as micromodule, is very thin and is embedded into the
plastic substrate or card. To do this, a cavity is formed or milled into
the plastic card. Then, either a cold or hot glue process bonds the
micromodule to the card. 

Types of smart cards

There are two types of smart cards–contact or contactless.
A contact smart card has to be inserted into a smart card reader for access. The
micromodule has connectors that are accessed by the reader for data transfer.
These are typically gold plated.

A contactless card doesn’t need physical contact with a
reader. Both sides have antennae that are used for communication. The antenna is
typically three to five turns of very thin wire connected to the chip. You have
to place the card about 2"-3" from the reader for data access. Here,
the card doesn’t need an additional power source for data transfer. The
electromagnetic signal emitted by the reader is enough to power the chip as
well. Because they’re fast to use, these cards can be used where a lot of
people need to access the reader, for example, at a railway subway system.

Two additional categories, derived from the contact and
contactless cards are: Combi cards and Hybrid cards. A Hybrid card has two
chips, each with its respective contact and contactless interface. The Combi
card is an emerging technology, which has a single chip with a contact and
contactless interface.

Inside a smart card

Smart cards can be fabricated with just memory, or can have a
microprocessor with memory. Memory-based smart cards simply have memory to store
information, such as personal identification details. These can be used as
identity cards, or phone cards–debit cards which you can use as a payment
mechanism to make calls from phone booths.

Processor-based smart cards are more complicated. They
contain a ROM to store an operating system, a main memory (RAM), and a memory
sector for application data (EEPROM). So, they’re more expensive too. These
cards can be used where heavy calculations or more security is required. For
example, you could use it as an ATM card to determine how much money is there in
your account. This information will then be stored on your smart card.
Processor-based cards can also be used to encrypt data.

Applications

The SIM (Subscriber Identification Module) cards in
cellphones are smart cards, and act as a repository for information like owner
ID, cash balance, etc. More than 300 million of these cards are being used
worldwide today.

Small dish TV satellite receivers also use smart cards for
storing subscription information. There are over four million in the US alone
and millions more in Europe and Asia.

There are tons of other applications that smart cards can be
used for. For example, they could be used for computer or Internet user
authentication, or for simply giving physical access through a gate. You could
have resort membership cards, or tickets for mass transport such as metro rail
and buses. Smart cards can be extremely useful in Government departments such as
in collecting toll tax on highways, or as identity cards, passports, etc.

State of affairs in India

In India, the Gujarat government has recently switched
completely to smart cards for all new driving licenses. Each card carries its
owner’s photograph and fingerprint, and traffic offenses are recorded on the
spot using hand-held terminals. One indirect advantage is that making fake
licenses has become almost impossible.

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