CSOs now find smart cards more attraction, thanks to convergence, lower cost and transitional gear.

As convergence, higher level security, multi-function applications and cost continues to drop, smart cards are finding accelerated acceptance.

Smart cards come in two basic varieties: contact and contactless. Contact is similar in use to magnetic stripe technology and must be inserted into a reader. Contactless, with an operation like proximity, is by far the preferred method for many physical security applications.

Since many chief security officers (CSOs) are familiar with proximity cards, it’s easy to understand the attraction of contactless smart cards, which is not a prox card per se, but works like RFID. But it works at a different frequency and typically has a lot more memory. Transitional cards exist, which incorporate proximity and contactless smart card technology, so CSOs can upgrade readers when needed and the budget allows. There are also multi-tech card readers.


Whether it is dual-technology or straight smart card, the technology is there right now to make it simpler for the end-user, commented Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, Princeton Junction, N.J. The Smart Card Alliance is a not-for-profit industry association that represents the smart card community in North America. “It’s very important that the technology is stable, well-documented and able to be combined with other technologies,” he insisted. “The technology has made significant advances in that area in the last few years.”

One of the biggest drivers is the U.S. government. The government is the innovator that corporations tend to follow, and they are. Markets that have moved to smart cards for physical security now include healthcare, educational institutions, financial institutions, large corporations, transportation and utilities.

“What’s common among them is they have large, distributed organizations and have multiple facilities,” Vanderhoof noted. “They look for an integrated solution so individuals from one facility can easily visit or transfer to another facility. The larger the organization, the stronger the value of return on investment of having a smart card solution.”

There are differences in the types of cards, based primarily on application and cost.


Contact smart cards have a contact area, comprised of several gold-plated contact pads, that is about 1cm square. When inserted into a reader, the chip makes contact with electrical connectors that can read information from the chip and write information back.

As smart cards have embedded microprocessors, they need energy to function and some mechanism to communicate, receiving and sending the data.


A second type is the contactless smart card, in which the chip communicates with the card reader through RFID induction technology. These cards require only close proximity to an antenna to a complete transaction. They are often used when transactions must be processed quickly or hands-free, such as on mass transit systems, where smart cards can be used without even removing them from a wallet.

Is contactless smart card technology the same as RFID technology?

According to the Smart Card Alliance, There is significant confusion in discussions of RF-enabled applications, with contactless smart card technology often incorrectly categorized as RFID. There are a wide range of RF technologies used for a variety of applications – each with different operational parameters, frequencies, read ranges and capabilities to support security and privacy features. For example, the RFID technologies that are used to add value in manufacturing, shipping and object-related tracking operate over long ranges (e.g., 25 feet), were designed for that purpose alone and have minimal built-in support for security and privacy. Contactless smart cards, on the other hand, use RF technology, but, by design, operate at a short range (less than 4 inches) and can support the equivalent security capabilities of a contact smart card chip.


The most common and least expensive smart cards are memory cards. This type of smart card contains EEPROM (Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory) non-volatile memory. The data can be locked with a PIN written to a special file on the card. Because this type is not capable of cryptography, memory cards are used in storing telephone credits, transportation tickets or electronic cash.

Most recently, security and computer technology companies are working more closely together to enable smart card applications.

At the recent International Security Association in Las Vegas, for example, HID Global, with solutions for the delivery of secure identity, said its Edge family of IP-based access control solutions will be incorporated into the OnGuard 2008 Plus solution by Lenel. Edge support will allow Lenel to further expand OnGuard’s capabilities to enhance existing sites, provide comprehensive contactless smart card implementations and meet the needs of users seeking pure IP-based devices as part or their access security system hardware platform.